Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Visibility of Man

The title of this post is a combined reference to two very different works of fiction: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Chuck Klosterman's The Visible Man.  The former I read decades ago and remember only vaguely as the eye-opening story (at least for a white girl from the suburbs) of being black, and therefore metaphorically invisible, in racist mid-century America.  The latter I read about a month ago and remember somewhat less vaguely as the story of a rogue government scientist who absconds with top-secret cloaking technology that allows him to be literally invisible for long periods of time. 

Whereas Ellison's book means to spotlight larger societal values and norms (and dysfunctions) that can cause the lives of an entire population to go unseen, unrecognized and unacknowledged, Klosterman's book inverts the spyglass and looks inward to the private spaces each of us inhabits when we are alone.  Through a series of bizarre events that are recounted in a psychologist's office in Austin, Texas, Klosterman explores the idea of what a person might observe if he or she had the ability to peer into our private moments; to watch and observe people in their own homes and apartments, completely unnoticed.

The idea of invisibility and what you could do with it is a big one.  Once you load this thought into your brain and then launch it with the bizarrely compelling tales that Klosterman provides, it is nearly impossible not to hit the flashing, red "TURBO" button that your imagination has illuminated off to the side of the story and blast off into your own universe of "what if."  I mean, for some of us, this idea could take up hours, days, even weeks of time that is meant to be spent reading legal briefs or making dinner or sleeping.

In an election year, the temptation to drop-in on some of our notable presidential candidates, for example, would be irresistible.  One could imagine going to Rick Perry's campaign headquarters, say, and watching the staff watching him during a debate -- the head-slapping, strings of expletives and eye-rolling would have to be of rarely seen proportions, right?  Or to see his handlers readying him backstage, checking to be sure his shoes are tied and that his bus number is pinned inside his jacket.  Or what about hanging out with Michelle and Marcus Bachmann?  Her denial seems pretty firmly anchored from what I can tell, but you never know.  Maybe they pray away the gay together every night on bended knee in flannel jammies next to their respective twin beds.

And presidential politics is just the beginning.  I mean, a person with the power of invisibility could go to Twins' games for free, figure out which house in Palm Desert is Jerry Weintraub's without provoking a swarm of golf cart driving private security staff buzzing up the driveway, and really mess with Tim Tebow.  Such a person could also totally hangout backstage or even on stage at First Ave as much as they wanted.  He, or she, could see how Jeff Tweedy writes a song or Joan Didion writes a book or how Tina Fey writes a T.V. show. 

After a few weeks of pondering the possibilities, though, it seemed like eventually it wouldn't be all that much fun to just be an observer.  You could go to the Twins games, but you couldn't order a beer or yell at the ump for calling a ball a strike.  Plus, invading the privacy of others isn't really anything I've ever aspired to.  As much as it would be interesting to see and observe what is behind a few individual curtains for a short period of time, the real intrigue, I think, is the reality that there are such curtains.  That we all have some sort of barrier between our public and private selves.  For some it would appear to be a gauzy film of the sheerest variety with no desire to really conceal anything at all (e.g., Snooki), and for others it might be the thickest, darkest brocade behind which lies a version of the Berlin Wall complete with armed guards and fiercely gnashing canines ready to be released at the slightest fingering of the velvet (e.g., J.D. Salinger from 1965-2010).

Regardless of the nature and design of your particular curtain, I am fairly confident that, to some degree, we are all different when we are by ourselves.  That when alone and unobserved, some of us are crotch-scratching, nose-picking, gas-releasing, Hoarder's-watching freaks.  That we still experience some amount of personal invisibility in that we cannot really be ourselves except in solitude.  Or, stated differently, we cannot be some part of ourselves when we are with each other.

We have certainly come a long way from the world Ellison showed us in bridging the gap between private reality and public acceptability.  In large parts of this country, or at least the major metropolitan areas, one can be minority and/or female and/or LGBT and still find many types of gainful employment while sitting in any seat on the bus that takes you there.  But the hippie in me that wants to buy the world a Coke and keep it company was thinking that for as much progress as we have made in advancing the boundaries of tolerance and acceptance and visibility, there is still progress to be made even here in one of the freest of societies. 

So, with this idea of tolerance and acceptance in my head, I trotted off to yoga one recent evening.  A little bit of namaste can go a long way towards expanding my own capacity for patience and tolerance, I've found, at least when it comes to my own family, so what better place to go and contemplate personal visibility and invisibility.

I set up my mat in my usual spot, arranged the small towels the gym provides for mopping up sweat just so next to my water bottle, and stretched and readied myself for The Practice. Now, while I enjoy yoga a lot and attend yoga classes regularly, I feel compelled to explain that I do not really speak yoga or go all-in for some of the attendant aspects of yoga, like the business with the third eye and the various chakras.  I'm not dissing them, I'm just saying that I enjoy a good yoga class mostly for the exceptional physical and mental discipline it instills, not to mention the sweat and muscles it produces.  I like it and do my best to learn from it, but I have not adopted it wholesale as a personal philosophy or lifestyle.  In other words, I do not consider myself a yoga Nazi, but you may need to be the judge of that.

As I am waiting for class to begin I can't help but notice that a huge dude has set himself up near me.  He was huge in the sense of huge.  Just built on a different scale than most of us.  Thicker, taller, wider, huger.   A really thick-cut piece of bacon.  So fine, whatever.  I have nothing against dudes in yoga.  Not even fantastically huge dudes.  In fact, the yoga classes at my gym are often 30-40% men.  The workout is legit and the word is getting out.  Plus, the hot part has you sweating your face off.  It is not for sissies.

After noting his hugeness, I was all zen and acceptance.  "Good for you, huge dude," I thought to myself.  Because I like to think I know what it is like to be off type.  To show-up for something and not be in the physical form, or of the gender, that others might have been expecting.  So, "good for you, huge dude."

But then I noticed the unusually loud breathing and the tendency towards grunting when stretching.  Surely this would cease once class began.  It didn't.  In fact, as the class gained heat and momentum the grunting was audible across the room.  Even those of us who do our best to heed the instructor's urging to engage in ujjayi pranayama breathing (also know as "oceanic breath" or sometimes as Darth Vader breathing) could hear the sporadic grunting over the rolling waves of breath.  But still, I tried to quiet myself and remember, "good for you, huge dude."

Then, at some point in the middle of class, I became aware of some very bad air that seemed to have been leaked.  As no warning sound preceded the release, I cannot identify the perpetrator as either Huge Dude or Not Huge Dude.  But it was at that moment that I realized my desire to make room in public for other people's private selves had reached a very precipitous edge.

"People," I thought to myself, "this is not your own private yoga class!  You need to clench and hold that sh*t in.  That is what the sphincter is for and I will not be having bad air in my yoga class.  No matter how at peace you are with your body, I am not at peace with those aspects of your body."

I left class that day with a less idealized notion of what the world might be like if we were all as comfortable on the other side of our private curtains as we are behind them.  And it did not smell good.

So what I'm saying is, I fully respect and support your right to be a visible and recognized member of society no matter your race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation or love of the New York Yankees (though that last one is particularly difficult to abide).  I respect your right to scratch yourself and watch bad television in the privacy of your own home.  But when you show-up for yoga, just please rein it back in a little. 


Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Things

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.  ~Aldous Huxley

I know we have already passed the officially sanctioned time for annual thankfulness, but all that football and turkey drenched in gravy makes it kind of hard to concentrate and focus on the not taking things for granted part.  Sometimes it is better to wait until the din of Thanksgiving toasts and proclamations has died down before gently tinging one's blogging fork against the crystal goblet of the internet.  Also, I might have started drafting this before Thanksgiving, but only managed to finish it just now. 

In the spirit of not wanting to take things for granted, I decided to take stock of the bounty and good fortune I have in my life; the things without which my life would undoubtedly be very different, and not for the better.  I am, of course, grateful for my eyesight and hearing, though I have often wondered if my speaking voice is audible as my children never seem to hear it.  I am appreciative that I have a job, a healthy family and health insurance in case that changes.  It's also quite nice to have friends, take vacations, be literate, not be ashamed of my President and enjoy the benefits of Amazon Prime membership.  But when you peel it all away and really get down to it, there are some fundamental elements that are the bedrock of it all:

Comfortable shoes:  Think about it.  How miserable would your life be if your foundational footwear was faulty?  Pretty miserable.  Being a double-X, chromosomally speaking, I am indeed inclined toward the love of shoes, but I have never been able to sacrifice comfort for glamor or sex appeal.  While I confess to owning many more shoes than I have feet, they were all selected with comfort as the chief criterion.  Stated differently: Nothing in my closet is likely to also be found in Snooki's closet, which is a good thing because such a collision of cobbler matter and anti-matter would annihilate us all instantly.

But just because I don't own any eight inch Manolo Blahniks, doesn't mean I don't appreciate quality footwear.  To the contrary, I am a big fan of shoes.  I wear them every day.  My favorite shoes at the moment are My Adidas:

There's so much to love about these shoes it's hard to know where to begin.  Not only are they gray with the trademarked white stripes and accented with a hint of lime green (which happens to be one of my favorite colors), but they are lightweight, good for sporty activities and pretty much an all around kick-ass pair of shoes.  They are particularly good at standing for long periods of time at First Avenue and in running around the lakes and trails of Minneapolis.  If I could wear them to work every day, I would. 

My other favorite pair of shoes is this pair:

They are by Donald Pliner and they are exactly what a non-Adidas pair of shoes should be.  In the summer, I do wear them to work every day.  I'm not kidding.  Ask anyone in my office and they will tell you.  I don't care if it is socially inappropriate to wear the same shoes nearly every day for an entire season.  If you had these shoes and wore them you would understand and then it wouldn't be inappropriate anymore because we would rise up and revolt until the social appropriateness czar was toppled and flogged and then we would be free, and light and goodness and comfortable shoes would finally rain down on all of us.  I have lots of other pairs of shoes that I really like too, but in the event of a fire, these are the two pairs that I'm going to grab before we bolt for the neighbor's house.

Carbohydrates:   Bread and its brethren have been badly abused in these carnivorous, protein-centric times we live in.  But I am steadfast in my carbohydrate devotion.  I heart carbs deeply and refuse to repent.  I don't care if all of you Adkins-Zone-aholics out there are having seizures at the very thought of a life filled with flour, gluten and yeasty goodness.  I really don't.  You can have your protein-filled hunks of flesh without a bun and I will have mine on a nice, fluffy, lightly toasted kaiser roll.  Or maybe I'll have a baguette with cheese or a big bowl of cereal or pasta.  Someday, I might actually dedicate an entire blog post to my love of cereal and peanut butter & jelly on toast.  (I know you won't want to miss that so I'll be sure to alert you in advance.)  Sometimes, I go to my favorite bakery in Minneapolis, Rustica, and buy several loaves of different kinds of bread, plus cookies and pastries and other flour-based items that I haven't tried before.  Just because I can.  (Note: this is where the convenience of wearing my Adidas all the time comes in handy, so that I can put down the bag of baked goods and go for a run in order to justify consuming what I have just purchased.)  I have ordered bagels from New York and luxurious loaves from Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  And I have never regretted it.  Oh, and by the way, my cholesterol level is something like 163.  Bam!

That stuff outside the windows:  It's pretty simple, really.  Sun + trees + blue skies + lakes + mountains + running/biking/hiking/walking/canoeing/kayaking/skiing + sweat = happiness.  Also yoga, but I do that inside during the bitterly cold Minnesota winter so as not to go completely insane.  I have also determined over a statistically valid sample period that one of the primary reasons I have not yet set my daughters out on the curb with a sign that says "Free" is that the time that would be required to pack their things and make the sign is usually already blocked for some outdoor activity or another.  So, in other words, getting outside is not only good for you, it is good for the people who live with you, especially if "you" in this case really means me.

Alcohol:  You knew it was coming.  Yes, I regularly enjoy a nice "glass of grape", as Mr. Lyle Lovett would say.  Also beer.  And some gin.  The other ones I've mostly wrecked as a result of user error in the past.  And while I know alcohol is a serious subject, my aim is precisely to avoid seriousness and boredom and drudgery and that general feeling that you have been tightened one turn too many.  A touch of fermentation can make all the difference in your evening.  It is amazing, really, how much a glass of red wine can improve your outlook on pouring the box of Annie's mac 'n' cheese into the pot of boiling water for like the sixth-gazillionth time, or explaining to your 8 year-old that she really does need to take a shower this week, or strategically sliding across the hardwood floor in your socks in an effort to beat the dog to the fresh pile of cat barf that the cat's cacophonous contortions recently expelled on the living room rug.  With a glass of wine or two in your system, all of this becomes much more entertaining.  It is possible that as a side effect, you also become much more entertaining to those around you, but I have never concerned myself with this.  Plus, it is scientifically proven that it is good for you.  At least that's the part that I read.

First Avenue:  Do you enjoy being alive?  Me too.  One of the primary reasons I enjoy being alive is that I live in the city where First Avenue is located.  First Avenue is one of the best places I've ever found for re-affirming that being alive is a pretty good gig.  Because inside First Avenue one can order a beer, chat, dance, sing, order another beer, shove the huge drunk guy off into a different trajectory, holler and whistle, sing some more, watch the social phenomenon of band-crowd banter, order another beer, sing again, go to the bathroom, feel kinship with your fellow music lovers and somehow come away from it all simultaneously exhausted and fully re-charged.  Plus, it looks like this:

And sometimes, if you are lucky, you will see someone with a highly specialized ability to express themselves take the stage and pour it all out.  If you see it coming and manage to catch it, for a fleeting, phantom moment, you will feel all of it pass right through you, and it will make you feel good inside.

The Internets:  I know they've been around for a while, the internets, but I am still grateful for them.  Perhaps it is my lack of maturity or the ease with which I am impressed, but I still think it is pretty awesome that you can sit down on your couch, open up your MacBook and instantly become your own tour guide to nearly any virtual experience you can conceive of and reduce to search terms.  From ordering groceries for next day delivery at 10 p.m. (which I do often), to paying bills, to satisfying a late-night yearning for . . . one more viewing of that e-trade baby commercial, there is content for everyone:

(Thanks to this video, my children and I now regularly mimic the baby's defiance in our house.  One might hear the following from any one of us, "Apparently, farting at the dinner table like it's no big deal is frowned upon in this establishment!")

If it weren't for the world wide web, I wouldn't know how real it was getting in the Whole Foods Parking Lot, what the Crazy Nastyass Honeybadger's approach to life was (he doesn't give a shit, he's hungry) or how to make Frosty the Cheeseball Snowman if the need should ever arise for a wintry, sadistic, cheese-food appetizer.  I also wouldn't have learned what a "murmuration" was and been able to watch this breath taking force of nature with my own eyes at 1 a.m., while still under the covers:

If I am in the mood for news of world events, I can get it no matter what the time of day.  If I am feeling blue, I can peruse the offerings on iTunes for music that is appropriately themed or search YouTube for live performances by The Shins or Cat Power.  I can research a blog post or potential vacation destination or figure out what "schwa" is so that I can help my sixth grader with her language arts homework.  And where else can you get into a heated political debate with a person you don't know and have never met, but who you would probably be perfectly nice to if introduced at a cocktail party?

But really, the best part of the internet is the part where I get to read posts from and learn things about friends, acquaintances, colleagues and even complete strangers on Facebook and Twitter.  It turns out that you are an incredibly smart, interesting, funny, insightful and inspiring group (current field of Republican presidential candidates excepted).  The breadth and diversity of passions and vocations, the shared challenges of parenting, the travel photos and status updates provide glimpses of lives and realities that would otherwise be lost to geography.  Although I now live very far away from where I grew up, online we can build and share a common neighborhood.  I can connect and engage with long lost friends from high school and college or former colleagues flung far and wide no matter on which coast, in what city or in what time zone we may each reside. 

So while I like the internets and all they connect me to day and night, what I really like is you, especially the six of you who read this blog from time to time, whoever you are.