Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A little more on the Jewish American Princess

I was really intrigued by the presentation on Monday about modern Jewish stereotypes, particularly those of the Jewish American Princess in light of my pretty strong reaction against Crea.  I wanted to find out more, and did some searches in Google and on YouTube.  What I found was a consistently humorous portrayal of the JAP, one that mocked her and lampooned her stereotypical love of fancy bags, dislike for work or labor, and lack of enthusiasm for bedroom activities.  We saw the University of Michigan "Pursuit of Jappiness" rap in their presentation, but "JAP" related videos and jokes and humor articles are just about everywhere.  Very rarely did I see anyone be called out on these stereotypes-- in fact, maybe only once or twice.

What I found to be particularly disturbing about all these different videos on Youtube was that they were largely produced by younger kids.  Many JAP videos were made by college kids looking to get a laugh, groups of friends filming fake documentaries on JAPs, young comedians poking fun at JAP culture.  What distresses me about this is that the whole idea of the Jewish American Princess is focused around negative Jewish stereotypes-- that Jews are money-focused, materialistic, passionless, selfish.  The JAP stereotype that is serving now as a comedic gesture is perpetuating these stereotypes in a way that is appealing and enjoyable to the younger generations.  It's a spoiled rich girl-- what's not to mock?  The JAP is surprisingly easy comedic material, and shows in a variety of comedic forms.

The fact that the JAP is so prevalent in modern youth comedy presents a disturbing issue regarding covert racism and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes across generations.  I feel like this is the way people continue to have these sort of racial stereotypes-- they receive racial biasing information in a context in which it seems "okay" to make fun of these stereotypes, okay to laugh at them and mimic them themselves.  It was distressing to see how easily youth culture runs with an idea they think is good for a laugh, and how easily humor can mask underlying racism.

Shanon Pomerantz will shine your shoes

Found this fantastic video essay from Mrs. Pomerantz herself-- apparently, her inspiration for Rich Boy came from her job shining the shoes of rich businessmen in the business district.

There's a lot to be said here, and I'll really let the video speak for itself.  But I did have one really interesting tie from Pomerantz and Rich Boy back all the way to House of Mirth.  She opens the essay with a long description about how different men wear different shoes, and what these shoes say about them.  She learns how to define them very visually, how to categorize them based solely on what she sees and by how they dress.  Their physical appearance displays not only their wealth, but really how they came by their wealth as well, and where that wealth was going.  This all made me flash back to Lily Bart and her constant submission to the male gaze. 

Men were always looking at her, observing her beauty as a way to determine her worth.  It's strange-- this idea of a gaze happens not only amongst the rich (or those trying to seem rich, in Lily's case) that seek to categorize each other, but also in the poor observing the rich.  And, I suppose, in the case of the Corey family judging the Lapham's dress and architectural style, the old rich observing the new rich.  And in Beans of Egypt, Maine, the middle-class observing the poor. 

There seems to be this running theme of the gaze in these novels, in a real fixation on details of dress and style-- to determine wealth, or even to try to discern character.  It comes into an interesting contrast with our similar theme of social immobility, that no matter how well you dress, you can't assimilate into the mannerisms and cultural understandings of the upper class.

Regardless, it lends a really interesting backstory to Ms. Pomerantz herself, though.  From shoe-shiner to novelist?  Just a rags-to-riches story in herself.

Colby vs. Langdon Hall

Ever since struggling my way through Schooled, I feel like I've become a little... unhealthily obsessed, so to speak, with Ms. Anisha, our author in question.  I've spent a good chunk of hours just perusing her site, gagging at her self-important, self-glorifying style.  As is my usual response to something I strongly, strongly dislike, I took to the internet to try to find someone that agreed with me on the matter.  What I was a little surprised (ok, absolutely shocked) to find was that most people seem to support her novel.  Most reviews from newspapers and magazines are positive, extolling the virtues of her work. 

I'm wondering if we, as Colby students, are just simply the wrong audience for her work.  I feel like Colby students that have attended private school would reject her overly negative depiction of the private school world, and those who haven't would be just outright disgusted at what she describes, the unbelievable wealth portrayed in such young kids.

Anyways, as I was thinking about how Colby tied to this novel, I came across this article.  It was similarly positive towards Lakhani, and offered this interesting tidbit from her: “I discovered that later—you can’t help but become interested in shoes when you tutor a sixth grader with 400 pairs.”

Ok, I have trouble with this.  I can't help but consider Colby when analyzing the ridiculous nature of her statement.  We have professors here that seem to exist in a constant state of L.L. Bean flannel, whose jeans have been too short for about 20 years now and who wear things that just don't quite scream "catwalk".  Now, please don't get me wrong-- I adore our professors, and I'm not trying to apply this "lack of fashion sense" theorem to all faculty (read: Sandy's bowties).  I adore that they are down-to-earth and levelheaded and value knowledge and hard work above the seasons latest styles at J. Crew.  To counter Ms. Lakhani's shoes statement, I'd just like to observe that we have a great many professors here that are surrounded by wealth and high fashion, and yet somehow manage to still feel fine about their socks that don't match.

I'd say you can help yourself in that environment.  Sure, coming to Colby has been a culture shock for me, and I've definitely picked up a few style tips, but do I feel compelled to run out and pick up a pair of designer pumps every time I spot something pretty?  Hell no.  Lakhani seems to spend a whole lot of time blaming her enviornment for her corruption, but I seriously doubt that it all hinges on her surroundings.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Bring Your Parents to School" day... is every day.

What irked me most about Schooled were the parents.  Ok, maybe that's not a fair statement, because a lot of Schooled irked me.  Most of Schooled irked me.  But the mothers stood out, at least with my educational background.  I'm attended public school in the Denver, CO suburbs up until coming to Colby, and truly loved it.  It wasn't a cultural melting pot by any means, but I did come in contact with a bit of class variety, as well as variety in personalities.  Public school was definitely about working hard to stand out, about getting involved in as much as you could if you really wanted to build a competitive resume for college application season.

What the Schooled mothers reminded me most of were the "helicopter moms" of my public school education.  I know the concept of a parent that sticks way too close to their maturing child's life is not one that is unique to a public school education and that it certainly occurs in private school as well.  But I couldn't help but comparing the differences between the Langdon Hall parents and the ones I came in contact with during my schooling.  The "helicopter moms" of Arapahoe High School seemed to cruise in when the child encountered any difficulties in grades or competitive extra-curriculars.  Jenny didn't get the "A" she needed on that big government test?  Well, she needs to keep her GPA up for college applications next fall, and mom is going to have a word with her teacher.  Mike got benched after a week of slack playing?  Dad has something to say to coach about that.  Parents would come in to teachers' office hours, send emails, make calls to let the teachers and coaches know that their child deserves more recognition, a higher grade, a better spot.

 However, when confronted, these parents seem to certainly have their childrens' best interests at heart.  They wanted their babies to succeed, to stand out, to rise above the 2,000 other suburban teenagers at Arapahoe.  It's not easy to make a stance in public school, and while I certainly don't support their behavior, I understand that they are motivated by how much they do care for their children.

This is where I saw the biggest discrepancy between public school parents and Lakhani's depiction of public school parents in Schooled.  A moment between Anna and Lara (Benjamin's mother) in the restaurant stood out to me especially.  Anna notes that the conversation they had over lunch was completely centered on her (Anna), and she feels as though she is "on a very lavish date with a man who was clearly trying to seduce me".  She also recognizes that they had not spoken about Bejamin once.  The mother is not there to discuss her child, to promote his merits or tout his academic skill.  She invites Anna to lunch solely to build a relationship in preparation for the "tutoring" sessions that these parents will offer to her.  Nowhere in the conversation does Lara communicate love, affection, or dedication to her child.  Nowhere in the conversation does she even mention him.

So I suppose helicopter moms do exist across the boundaries of class or wealth, but for different purposes.  My public school helicopter moms seemed intent on securing for their children the most rich and successful educational experience, while the Lakhani's private school moms seem only intent on buying their childrens' grades.  This may be just my own bias, though; my parents did a fantastic job of not helicopter parenting, and I definitely have fairly strong feelings against helicopter parents and what they ultimately do to a child.  Anyone have any thoughts on the subject?  Does anyone from a private school have a counterpoint I may have missed?

Why we struggle with Carolyn Chute.

EDIT:  Paula brought it to my attention that this essay is actually the one she had listed on the syllabus.  Pay attention much, Melanie?  Guess not...

I came across this really interesting essay by Professor Roberta Rosenberg while reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine.  We had a good discussion on Monday in class about how some of the members of our class really didn't like the novel.  I myself was undecided-- I couldn't decide between my love for Chute's writing and language and my overwhelming fear and sadness for the Bean family's situation.  But there were definitely members of the class who didn't enjoy the book, and this essay addresses that directly.  The author is an English professor who teaches the book in some of her undergrad and grad courses.  She has had students in her course vehemently oppose this novel, and looks into why that may be so.

She centers around the idea of what it means to be in the middle class.  Rosenberg suggests that to be successful in the middle class, one is required to have a significant amount of self-motivation, a self-sufficiency and autonomy that drives and sustains motivation.  Middle-class success is hard work, and the middle-class students that she teaches approach the literature with a high value for  "originality, innovation, and individual personality".  Rosenberg then cites sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich in suggesting that to be poor is to possess "a peculiar psychopathology which precludes them from adulthood: "the poor person live[s] for the moment, unable to think ahead, to save or plan for the future . . . trapped in the past, unable or unwilling to grow up, as the middle class ha[s]".

As her students approach the Beans as "immature adults"  that reject religion, education, work, motivation, and the possibility of a future.  In many ways, we get to see our own view of the Beans through the eyes of Earlene, who is obsessed and yet repulsed by the Beans as she watches them from her middle-class window.  Earlene denies to the end that she is a part of them, clinging to her middle-class value set despite her obvious integration into the Bean family life.  

I think this is a fair analysis of why so many members of our class had such a tough time with this novel.  Especially as Colby students, we have an immense value for the importance of hard work and motivation, and to face the Bean family is to face (to us) a population of individuals that ignore success and chose a stagnant lifestyle over one that is upwardly mobile.  I know I have a lot of trouble with a few of my fellow Colby peers that refuse to work hard or put their all into their education.  It's a small population, but the students that do blow of schoolwork for personal pleasure and fun infuriate me to no end.  I see Colby as such a place of oppurtunity, and to waste the potential we have here is, in my eyes, to take for granted what we have as upwardly mobile, middle-class young adults receiving world-class educations.

I think I personally need to get much more used to the idea that the Beans are indeed trapped in poverty in order to accept and enjoy this novel to its fullest extent.  As long as any of us view the Beans' extreme poverty as something of their own doing, I believe it's almost impossible to love this novel.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Beans of Maine

Reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine was very, very difficult for me.  I'm in Peter Harris' "Teaching Poetry in Elementary Schools" class this semester, and I've been going in to Waterville elementary school classrooms twice a week to teach poetry to the kids there.  I've enjoyed it immensely, but it's also been marked by some very intense moments that have absolutely set me back in my place and reminded me of the level of poverty and just daily tragedy that exists in some of these kids' lives.  It comes out as artistic expression in the poetry they write in the very innocent way that only children have.  They reveal things without realizing they're revealing; they let on to things that they don't know are secrets.  I've found out accidentally about mom's violent boyfriend, dad's arrest, his abusive brother and her mom's debilitating unemployment.  All this gets very heavy over time, but returning to the hill after a class can be very grounding.  It's like I get back here and surround myself with all these enthusiastic, brilliant students and can't help but feel better.

But Beans really grounded me.  The kids give me glimpses of what their home lives are like, but this novel put it all in your face.  Who knows which of the little kids in my class go home to Beal Bean?  To "big bean babies" or Roberta Bean?  There are a few little girls that always give me hugs before I leave class at the end of the hour.  There's a girl who always writes about kittens, no matter what the prompt.  There's a boy who has a unnaturally expansive lexicon, yet always writes about very dark and violent topics.  There's a painfully shy girl that just recently discovered that her writing can make people laugh.  There's a boy who will not write anything, who just stares at me when I try to talk to him.

I don't know where these kids are going.  I don't know if they're actually going anywhere at all.  I don't know what they come home to, who washes their shirts or braids their hair.

I'm actually having a lot of trouble writing about this, so this will be sort of a short blog.  It's just hard to suddenly realize what's actually going on, and maybe even harder to have no idea.

Sorry, Cora Lee.

I know that one of the biggest points of this blog is to encourage us to connect out into the world, to link the literature to salient details about today.  So I do try to link our literature to things that matter.  But, unfortunately for Ms. Cora Lee, the only thing I could think about when reading about her story was Octomom.

For those unaware of Octomom, she's a single mom who has used fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization to give birth to octuplets.  That's eight babies at once.  Oh, and that's on top of six children she already had.  While unemployed and on welfare.  The initial public reaction to the miraculous survival of her eight new babies was congratulatory and joyous, if a little dumbfounded that something like that could happen.  We, as Americans, were overwhelmed by the incredible cluster of tiny new lives before us and were all behind our medically-impossible mother, donating food, clothes, and even significant amounts of money to the new family.  But as the facts started coming out about her fertility treatments, her unemployment, her welfare, and (worst of all) her six other children, things went a little downhill for Octomom.  People condemned her, ragged on her irresponsibility, berated her poor mothering skills.  To be true, she was a terrible mother.  Latest updates on Octomom confirm that she actually received plastic surgery in hopes of making her lips more like Angelina Jolie.

What I'm trying to get at in all that information is that we seem to be initially overjoyed by babies, but the preliminary celebrations wear off rather quickly.  The fairytale of new birth only lasts for a little while before the reality of raising a family sets in.  This is the same for Cora Lee; she consistently fails to confront her responsibilities as a parent to the children that are aging and instead focuses on her youngest children, those who are still babies to love and hold.  Octomom was quoted in stating that "all I wanted ... was to be a mom. That's all I ever wanted in my life."

But unbenownst to these women, motherhood extends past the initial months and years of babyhood.  Children grow, and to have kids is to say "yes, I know what I'm doing with my life and I'm stable enough to provide completely for another human being".  Neither Cora Lee nor Octomom have jobs, husbands, directions, or ambitions.  Raising a baby is relatively easy, raising a child is frustrating, raising a teenager is infuriating, and putting fourteen young adults through college without a consistent salary is impossible.  Let's hope Cora Lee has a savings fund somewhere, because the path to motherhood will only get harder as she goes.

Cannot get enough of this woman.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods?

As they ate pieces of sugar cane in the fields, Butch told Mattie to "spit it out while it's still sweet".  Not only does this foreshadow their relationship, but it also illustrates a theme of movement and rearrangement that differentiates between men and women in The Women of Brewster Place.  Butch spends the sweetest times with Mattie, enjoys the physical pleasure of the moment, then gets out before her father finds out and the baby must be supported.  He doesn't get away while the sweetness has ended; he leaves while the sweetness is at its peak.

In many ways, I feel like this typifies many of the men in this novel.  So far, only Kiswana's boyfriend is a good man, and he has yet to make a physical appearance (up to where I've gotten).  The rest of the men are abusive, neglectful, lustful, animalistic, and negligent.  The theme of illegitimate fatherhood runs through the work, as few children are conceived within wedlock or even within a healthy relationship.  What I realized, upon this later consideration of Butch's words in the context of the novel, is that the men are taking advantage of the sweetness of the Brewster women.

Take, for example, Mattie and her son, Basil.  She loves him unconditionally, and makes huge sacrifices to help him grow up well.  She provides for him to the point of spoiling him, and is arguably blind to the rather rotten child she has ultimately raised.  In the end, Basil leaves her alone, deserting her as many of the men in the novel continue to do, whether to mothers, wives, girlfriends, or one-night-stands.  The Brewster women are unanimously forgiving, endlessly full of hope in the goodness of the men in their lives despite the blatant evidence to the contrary.

To me, this all begs the question of why?  Why on earth are these women so willing and ready to return and trust the men that betray and destroy them?  What about their histories or personalities make them so vulnerable to these sleazy men?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER... itty bitty living space

I realized that I missed my "How the Other Half Lives" blog, and wanted to share something that a friend of mine from Japan recently showed me.  They're called capsule hotels-- google it if you don't believe me.  There are just plenty of pictures.  They're unbelievable space savers, able to fit enormous amounts of people into absolutely miniature spaces.  It's such a compelling part of Japanese culture to me, that a nation should be so successful but be just inherently limited by the simple, unconquerable force of geography.

Now, a lot of the blogs and articles I read about this were of people telling about the night they spent in a capsule hotel, just to see what it was like.  But this New York Times article talks about unemployed men and women that stay in capsules every night out of necessity.  Apparently they were originally built with the intent of housing workers who had been drinking and missed the last train home (quite a significant population, apparently), but have now become refuges for the unemployed and homeless, who keep their belongings in tiny suitcases and rent the capsules for far less than it would cost to keep an apartment in Tokyo.

That part really got me, that these were never intended to be housing for the desperate.  The recession forced many our of their homes, and this was really the only option for staying in the city.  I linked this instantly to the tenement houses in Riss' work and was reminded of the absurdly cramped living conditions that families struggled with every day.  We certainly saw it in Maggie; she and her family live cramped up against hundreds of other families in the filthy tenements.  What boggles my mind about both these situations is the extreme lengths that people will go to in order to stay in the cities.  I know Riis mentions that this is centered on the ethnic and cultural communities that formed, and also in both situations for the jobs available in the cities.  But could this really be it?  I can't personally imagine getting by in such an extremely limited space.  I guess I'm just missing that extra factor that's keeping people in the cities from moving away to the countryside, or at least the suburbs.  Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

And I guess, to move it into my own life, some of our living spaces here at Colby can be rather cramped as well.  Now, it's nothing like the capsule housing or tenements, but there was nothing spacious about my freshman year double.  We could certainly choose to live off campus in a house, and in many cases it would be almost more affordable, but most of us choose not too.  My reasoning, and I know the reasons of my friends as well, centers around the desire to be in the social scene, to be constantly surrounded by the people I love and in the middle of all the absurdity and fun that can be Colby College's social scene.  Maybe that's what keeps people in cities as well, that desire to stay close to the people and places they are comfortable with.  Even if that means suffering through the most uncomfortable living.


In taking a look back over my blog this weekend, I realized that I missed out on writing a blog for Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.  I'm actually really glad that I'm writing it now though, because I think it raises some really interesting points and makes me look over what we've covered in class so far in a new light.

We covered chapters on Conspicuous Leisure and Conspicuous Consumption.  Each of these themes cover the idea that the leisure class must live their lives in a very outwardly luxurious manner in order to secure the esteem of their colleges.  In a way, this manner of living is almost directed at harvesting jealousy, as it hinges in the innate comparisons that members of the leisure class form with each other.  Who has the newest car?  Whose house is the largest?  Who quit his job and hires servants to press the orange-juicer button?  It definitely spoke to many of the works we've read, obviously Gatsby, Silas, and House of Mirth.  It even extends to the novels of the lower class as well, specifically Maggie.  Maggie's goal is obtain some kind of security and stability in her life, but she certainly feeds off of the outward social richness that Pete provides.  She basks in the evenings out, the fancy dinners and shows that put her in a position of public appraisal of her wealth.  Pete succumbs as well to the seductive call of social wealth, as his encounter with Nellie sends him off into her arms, as she hails from a higher social class and can therefore offer him a higher position in society.  From the lower class to the upper crust, no one is resistant to the temptation of being able to live a conspicuously wealthy lifestyle for purely social reasons.

For a while, I assumed that every work in this class would be sort of in that general vein.  It's a very American thing, after all, to compare yourself to others and show off your accomplishments, is it not?  I guess I've been taking these paramount ideas of conspicuous leisure and consumption to be overarching truths of America, from the low to the upper classes.

However, reading Grapes of Wrath kind of switched things up for me.  The Joad family lives in a state of extreme poverty and wants nothing more than to get to the mythic opulence and comfort of California, the land of "milk and honey".  At face value, they're like any other group we've seen in the other novels: striving for wealth.  But they're not really striving for wealth, persay, just the wealth of comfort.  Of stability, of a lifestyle unburdened by the strains of hunger and need.  Grampa simply wants to eat the grapes and let the juice run down his chin; nowhere does he suggest wanting to have anyone watch him do it.  Their wealth is based not in the having of things, but in the comfort of the family unit as a whole.  Ma's dream is of a white house on a farm-- she doesn't want anything big, just something to contain her loved ones.  And at night, when the cars park in impromptu villages, everything is shared, people give to those that need without expecting anything in return.

I wonder of Grapes of Wrath represents a turning point in how America approached wealth.  Surely an event as monumental as the Great Depression could have the the potential to restructure the social construction and concept of wealth for the nation.  In the light of such nationwide destitution, did we move from a nation of show-offs to a nation of bare-necessities?  Was this a permanent change, or did it revert right back to conspicuous leisure and consumption once the nation had pulled itself out of the depression?  Or is this portrait of "wealth is family" America unique to the impoverished farmland families of the Great Depression?  I'd be very interested to see what the wealthy were doing during the Depression.  Did they live their wealth just as blatantly, or lay low?  I'll be interested to see how the remaining novels in this course approach this issue.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Play Spent

Obviously, I am all about the online games.  I found this one in an online search about homelessness for a project I was doing for another class.  It's called Spent, and it takes you through what a month might look like as an unemployed member of the modern day extreme lower class.  You start out with a budget of $1000 and navigate the month of bills, food, and surprise expenses.

I started out knowing that I'd make it through.  I was a smart kid, I get by on my loan-burdened college kid budget, so I should be able to handle this.  And I did.  I ended the month with around $300 dollars.  But the situations that Spent put in my way definitely made me reconsider the kind of person I was or what I would do to stay afloat.

In one situation, I had surprise medical bill that sapped a chunk of my finances and was struggling to get toward payday.  With a few days left to go and more groceries to by, I got a popup that said that one of my children got a birthday card in the mail from his Grandma that contained $10.  The game asked me if I would keep the money, or let him hold on to it.  I thought it out-- sure I could let him keep it, but he'd probably just buy a toy or something.  I was the adult, right?  I had to make the best decision for everyone, right?  I knew that I'd be back on my feet at some point, and I could always just pay him back later.  So I kept the $10 and used it to buy groceries.

In another scenario, our family pet got ill.  A vet visit would have been around $1000, euthanasia about $50.  The third option was to let it suffer.  I wanted to do something, but pay day was still a long way off and I had to think about food.  So I let it suffer.

After playing this game, I actually had to sit back for a few minutes and sort myself out.  It was amazing how personal it got, how it forced you into some pretty unthinkable life situations that seem unreal but are actually very present in the lives of thousands of Americans every day.  Spent definitely got to me.  I'll be honest-- being at Colby can be overwhelming, and I definitely get jealous of some of the beachside vacations and luxury clothes that my family doesn't really have access to.  But this game put it all in perspective for me.

It also tuned me in to some things I didn't really connect with or understand about the Grapes of Wrath.  The big thing was the driving force of food.  The whole focus of the novel was centered around feeding the family, on reaching a land of abundant fruit and work.  I guess it didn't make sense to be because I've never actually experienced not having enough money for food.  It's not that I didn't believe that they truly were struggling to feed themselves, I just couldn't connect with the idea of that level of poverty. 

I won't claim now to know exactly what it's like to be struggling to that degree, but Spent definitely gave me some perspective for The Grapes of Wrath and for my own life.  I would totally recommend it, I feel like a lot of the Colby would totally benefit from reading a thing like this.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath and the Green Light

I found this little cartoon on a Google image search for "grapes of wrath".  Creative, I know, but this is usually my go-to method for looking for blog ideas, and I think this photo actually brings up a pretty fascinating idea when we start to compare what was happening in Depression-Era America with what is happening in the country today. 

I'm at first really hesitant to jump to the "compare then and now" idea because at face value, then and now seem so obscenely different that it seems unfair and almost blasphemous to try to draw similarities.  People were literally starving to death, farms evicted and destroyed by the hundreds of thousands, and in the present day, we have a horde of college grads that are going back home to live in their parents' basements.  Men jumped out of windows then; men have to take out loans now.  Coming from a family that has certainly understood the effects of the recent economic climate, I certainly understand that it's bad.  But is it that bad?  One assumes, of course not.

But then I took a little step back and considered it all again.  What makes me reconsider my attitude towards two so drastically different periods in the American economy is the difference that I see in Americans' opinions of the future.  Take the above cartoon, for example.  It's a clear parody of the Grapes of Wrath journey across America, done in reverse from Nevada to Oklahoma.  The family is fleeing some sort of poverty and moving back in with the Grandparents.  Perhaps it's a commentary on a trend of families consolidating across generations to save money; perhaps it's a jab at today's economy being so bad that we'd rather be back on the farm with Granma and Grampa.  I'm not sure.  What it made me consider, though, is how our hopes for the future have changed, from then to now.  The Joad family chased the dream of California across the country with an almost humorously hopeless fervor; we, as the audience, saw the tragic, dramatic irony of Pa and his bulletin about the 800 workers needed for fruit picking and the way he clung to it from stop to stop.  It was clear that California was no paradise, but with the stubborn insistence of the Joad family that they were headed for peaches and grapes straight off the vine, they pressed on despite all signs of disaster.  They had in them such a singular, shared hope-- such a driving force that held them together and pushed them forward.

 I think this is the biggest difference between then and now, and the difference that carries the heaviest implications.  What are we striving for?  What gets us out of bed in the morning to press onward, what makes us fight against the inevitable in spite of how impossible it may seem?  I don't know, and I don't know if we know either.  I'm not sure that present-day America has a really good feel for what it's working for, for that optimism that things do get better.  Do we even feel that things can get better?  Even though the American Dream was tragically foolish and futile at times, it was centered around an undying optimism that could outlast even the most profound poverty.  I don't know if we have that any more, and that definitely makes me nervous about where we, as a country, stand now, and where we're headed.  Anybody else have any ideas about all this?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"OMGWTF, Gatsby!"

It's been a few years since I read Gatsby, and I've found that I've absolutely loved coming back to it.  It really is such a beautiful, lyrical read, and I keep underlining passages that pull at me.  Most of the book, I want to read out loud, I want to have it read to me, I want to fall asleep to Fitzgerald's long descriptions of Gatsby's parties and wake up to the Valley of Ashes.  I could read most of the book every day of my life, I think.  But not all of it.

I've realized, upon this reading, how very much the dialogue drives me nuts.  Take, for instance, this conversation between Catherine and Mrs. McKee at Tom's flat in New York in Chapter II.

"When they do get married," continued Catherine, "they're going West to lie for a while until it blows over."
"It'd be more discreet to go to Europe."
"Oh, do you like Europe?" she exclaimed surprisingly.  " I just got back from Monte Carlo."
"Just last year.  I went over there with another girl."
"Stay long?"
"No, we just went to Monte Carlo and back.  We went by way f Marseilles.  We had over twelve hundred dollars when we started, but we got gypped out of it all in two days in the private rooms.  We had an awful time getting back, I can tell you.  God, how I hated that town!"  p.34

I read passages like this and just go crazy.  Their livelihoods revolve around gossip and social interaction, and their analysis of life events is surface-level and shallow.  I mean, I'd hate to throw something like this into the mix as a means of comparison, but I really can't help it.  Gatsby's dialogue is better (except when he's around Daisy), but the majority of characters in this novel are always crying out, nodding their heads, and gazing off distantly.  It's absurd to me.

Of course, I took a step back and gave it another thought.  I realized that this was F. Scott Fitzgerald and it's an exceptionally short novel, and if he wanted to put something in his work then there sure as hell was a good reason for it.  So I'm caught between two theories on this.

One, that Fitzgerald really wants to set this mood of emptiness and idiocy in his work and includes these trains of dialogue as a way of drawing the reader into the sense of emptiness and lack of substance.  It's a true reflection of the idle rich and communicates Fitzgerald's commentary on the lack of substance or meaning in the upper crust.

Two, their dialogue is actually ripe with meaning beneath the guise of being utterly inane.  While on the surface, it seems like nothing these people are saying to each other matters, but underneath lies a current of meaning and social commentary.  This is actually compelling and fairly ironic, that people with so little to say could say so much.  They're a bunch of beautiful people with simple lives and no responsibility, so what could it mean that Fitzgerald might employ their empty dialogue to communicate his deeper meaning?

Do you feel lucky?

We talked about Lily's excessive gambling in class, and discussed how she gambles away a good deal of her livelihood that could be spent on the lavish lifestyle she wants so badly.  She does have a decent amount of money; if she were to save wisely, she could easily provide for herself and be comfortable as a single woman.  However, Lily's eyes are on the prize, so to speak, and she instead relies on luck to get to where she wants to be.

This idea of luck is pervasive in House of Mirth.  You can see it not only in all the characters' gambling tendencies, but also in the way Lily approaches suitors and marriage.  In the novel-- and hinted in her past as well-- Lily turns down certain men under the idea and hope that there's an even better, richer, more socially powerful man on his way.  It's this approach towards gambling that has brought Lily here in the first place, to the state of being in her late twenties and without the security of marriage.

I started to wonder how this could be, how Lily could be so flagrant with her disregard of consequences when gambling with her future.  She loses big in stocks and loses frequently in bridge-- why can't she learn from these mistakes and apply them to the grander scheme of her life?  I wonder if Lily has ever really fallen hard, really felt the consequences of her gambling approach to life.  With the suitors, a failure with one certainly wouldn't feel permanent, because there are so many suitors out there and she is just so young and pretty. 

What Lily fails to really get a grasp on, I think, is the actual weight of the chips she gambles with.  These are her beauty, her youth, and her future.  The people she associates with are either young, fun, and single, or old, secure, and married.  I feel like Lily believes that one can be only either young/fun/single, or old/secure/married-- never a mix of these two spheres.  It doesn't once truly occur to her that she can be old and single, and so she doesn't realize how much weight lies in the chips she holds.  Even when they're gone, their "goneness" feels impermanent and fixable.

I guess what I'm getting down to is that I feel like Lily has trouble with absolutes, with final endings and permanent changes.  She just doesn't believe that they exist.  This is something I've struggled with in my own life as well, an obliviousness to the idea that my actions may have permanent results.  I really connect with Lily here; I think we both ignore the idea "foreverness" as a sort of self-preservation tactic.  It's a lot easier to take gambles here and there if you're not quite in touch with the reality of losing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why read the book when you could play the video game?

Leave it to the internet to combine two of my favorite things: F. Scott Fitzgerald and video games.   That's right, it's The Great Gatsby for NES.  Who's excited?  I know I was.  In fact, I was so excited that I sat and dragged my poor little Nick Carraway through an untold number of "Game Over, Old Sport!"s in front of anyone who cared to see on the first floor of Miller.

I realized two things as I sat there, engrossed in my 8-bit adventure.  The first: I'm not all that great at video games.  Which is all right in any other setting, but I just wanted to find Gatsby in the garden!  Owl Eyes told me he would be there! 

The second: I gained such an odd sense of self-satisfaction, sitting there playing some silly NES game in front of my fellow library patrons.  At a table behind me, one guy was paging through an 8-book stack of history journals.  To my left, a girl was scanning hopelessly through her O-chem text.  And I'm sure somewhere else on the 1st floor, someone was writing a blog for this class with true academic and literary relevance.  But there I was, dodging waiters with martinis without a care in the world.

Maybe it's a little twisted, maybe it's not 100% accurate, but maybe that's what it feels like to be idle rich.  Not only did I have the luxury of a free evening amidst all the laborers and midterm-takers, but I was showing it.  I had it blatantly on my screen that I was done for the night, that I had time to waste and by God, I was going to waste it.  Looking back, I realize that I was actually pretty proud of it, pretty excited to show off my academic security.  All I wished for in the world at that point was to have a cut lawn, an uncut book, and a glass of scotch.  I guess that's part of being part of the idle rich-- with such a lack of real accomplishment, it must be brutally tempting to show off the only thing they do have: their lack.  What good is doing nothing if you don't have anyone to do nothing in front of?

(A side note to the fine patrons of Miller 1st floor: please accept my humblest apologies.  In all honesty, I had two lesson plans to type, half a book to read, a Moodle response due, and a paper to annotate.  Rest assured knowing that my show of academic security and confidence was nothing more than that: a show.  I'm just as doomed for that upcoming midterm as you, friend.  Or as they say, "Game Over, Old Sport!".)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Keeping a Free Foot

While reading The House of Mirth, I was drawn to the relationship between married couples vs. the interactions of the young and single.  We had a class discussion about married women being able to flirt, but the single ladies having to be reserved and stick to a certain code.  I was thrown off guard by this apparent power imbalance between romantic couples during this time period.

We talked recently in my Child Development class about power struggles in relationships.  In most relationships you will have throughout your life, there's going to be someone with more power and someone with less power.  The healthier the relationship, the less dramatic the imbalance and less power discrepancy between the two groups.   I found one passage in particular that really threw me off, when reading for this kind of interaction.

When Lily goes to the station to pick up Mr. Trenor, they drive back home and have a conversation about why Mrs. Trenor would have sent Lily.  She argues that she's the "safest person" for him to be with, and to this he replies, "It's because you wouldn't waste your time on an old hulk like me.  We married men have to put up with what we can get; all the prizes are for the clever chaps who've kept a free foot."

I'm trying to determine where the power lies in married couples.  Is it in the male, who has acquired the beautiful piece of feminine art and may now show her off to his society?  This passage made me question this belief and wonder about the power of the female in a married position.  Not only may she flirt with other men now, as we mentioned in class, but Mr. Trenor references the Mrs. as a sort of "ball and chain" by pointing out his lack of a "free foot".  She has a power over him, and I think that power is drawn from keeping him from occupying the art-collector role of the younger, single men in society.  In the idle rich lifestyle, this pleasure in the female form is one of the only pastimes, and it drives much of their interaction-- gossip, dinner parties, tableaus.  But what good is a husband, who has already acquired his essential piece of art?  And now his wife has access to his funds and is able to throw the elaborate dinner parties, plan travels abroad, and exert control over their husbands.

I believe this ties closely in to how and why Lily operates the way she does.  She wants that power, that freedom afforded by a wealthy marriage, but is not willing to play by the rules and constraints of being a proper, single lady.  I guess that's what makes Lily an especially compelling character to me, that she should life her life in such a binary of having the power to be manipulative and successful on her own, yet tries to fit herself into the box of matrimony that society has prescribed for her.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A "quaint modern American fatalism"

While reading Silas Lapham, one phrase stuck out to me and sort of followed me through to the end. Chapter 9 ends with a discussion between Mrs. Lapham and her daughter, Penelope.  They discuss Irene's relationship with Mr. Corey, who may or may not be seeking her hand in marriage.  In frustration, the two bemoan having ever met the Corey family, and wish that they had never become involved with the paint business.  Finally, the two recognize that the situation is out of their hands.

     "Well, we must stand it, anyway," said Mrs. Lapham, with the grim antique Yankee submission.
     "Oh yes, we've got to stand it," said Penelope, with the quaint modern American fatalism.

I found these two descriptions to be so compelling, the "grim antique Yankee submission", and moreso the "quaint modern American fatalism".  Submission and fatalism, both terms that imply a lack of control.  However, Mrs. Lapham serves as a representation of an older America, and her approach to these events is one of passivity and submission to dominance.  She recognizes the situation as being out of her control and pessimistically admits defeat.

However, Pen, who to me represents the hope for new money families to survive in upper crust society, approaches the situation with fatalism.  Fatalism, or the philosophy that events are out of one's control and left instead to fate, could certainly characterize the lower class.  However, rather than the expressly negative view offered by Mrs. Lapham's submission, fatalism suggests that while we are powerless, fate can decide both negative and positive paths for us.  While Mrs. Lapham sees the glass as half empty, Pen just sees that there is a glass, for better or for worse.

I feel like this submissive vs. fatalist philosophy fits in very well to much of what we've been discussing in class structure.  Is it possible to move up in class, or are we born to submit with our preexisting dominated social status?  Is social mobility even something that can be influenced by one's actions, or is it left up to fate?  We see that Silas's rise to economic power was by the good fortune of finding the paint well on his father's property.  While his rise also entailed a good deal of hard work, the initial push was from the chance discovery of a great fortune buried beneath a giant tree.  Could Silas have risen economically if pulling himself up by his bootstraps alone?  And once he rose economically, could he ever assimilate socially?  Or was he and the rest of the Lapham family fated to forever linger on the lower crust?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reflection and Disbelief While Reading Silas Lapham

While reading Howells The Rise of Silas Lapham, I had a moment when I realized that I wasn't taking a word of the book seriously. It was like Howells was talking about all these characters and storylines and I was just tuning out, falling asleep in the middle of lecture. I felt instantly shamed and self-conscious about this state of mind and took a minute to step back and take stock of what I was feeling. It all came together for me in my Fiction Writing class with Professor Boylan, when we had a brief discussion of character and plot believability. The willing suspension of disbelief, the moment when we, as readers, say "okay, yeah, I'll buy this, I'll see where you take this". I realized that I didn't believe a word of this story, I didn't believe in Silas's paint or Pen's sassiness or the Corey family's gradual moral decay. I didn't believe any of it-- to me, it felt like a caricature of the upper crust.

With this in mind, I connected strongly with Leah's blog in which she describes the very in-your-face attitude of richness and new money. Leah argued at the end that "no matter what occurs, the standard which is used to measure social status will always be obnoxious, whether it's based on family history or how much money you spent on a car that you don't drive but leave in the drive-way for everyone to see." I thought this was completely spot-on to how I was feeling. It was obnoxious to me, all of it. I was especially annoyed by the Corey family's social pretension, their exaggerated commitment to social hierarchy and the superiority afforded to them by their "old money" status. And then Silas's own garish over-decoration of his house, and the intense social structure and immobility displayed in the dinner party...

Overall, I felt that Silas took an almost satirical hit at class division and social structure, and if there's one thing that gets old fast for me in literature, it's satire. Of course, I'm not positive. I tried to find facts and information online to support or refute this claim and didn't get anything solid. It could actually be a fairly accurate of American culture and class structure during the 1800s. However, I didn't buy it. To me, the view of old rich in America felt forced, overdone, and exaggerated. Anyone else in my boat? Or did you feel like Howells did an historically accurate job? Was that even what he was aiming for with Silas?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Life Satisfaction, Yesterday and Today

I found this article in Time magazine that discusses the idea of money buying happiness.  Its big claim is that happiness today is positively correlated with an annual income up to $75,000-- after that point, happiness plateaus.  Life satisfaction, or the feeling that one’s life is working out as a whole, continues to increase, but the subjects surveyed showed no significant increases in happiness (or unhappiness, for that matter) after that point.

I found this to be very interesting, and perhaps in contrast with Twain’s The 30,000 Bequest.  Aleck and Sally seemed to become increasingly distressed and unhappy as their wealth increased.  With the added power and responsibility that their imaginary funds afforded them, the two felt more pressure to invest wisely, more awareness of the immense possibility of their success and disaster of their failure. 

However, the point of the article that really drew me was the mention of “life satisfaction”, and how it continues to increase as individuals become more wealthy.  I saw quite the opposite in Sally and Aleck’s story.  It seemed that as their funds increased, they became more and more dissatisfied, more aware of not only how much money they had, but how much others had as well.  The more imaginary money they gained, the more they put themselves in the context of high-society.

I’m kind of curious about the discrepancy between Sally and Aleck’s life satisfaction and the modern trend of life satisfaction.  What about modern society allows us to feel more and more satisfied as we gain money, whereas Twain depicts an America that becomes more resentful towards their lives and work as they earn more?

"Vast wealth is a snare"

In class, we mentioned the concept of “true happiness” in Twain’s The 30,000 Bequest, whether it was present or even possible in the story.  Aleck and Sally view money and riches as a route to happiness.  On this thought, I did a text search and traced the word “happy” through the reading.

The first instance in the first chapter describes Aleck and her position in life: “She had an independent income from safe investments of about a hundred dollars a year; her children were growing in years and grace; and she was a pleased and happy woman. Happy in her husband, happy in her children, and the husband and the children were happy in her.”  This sort of happiness centers around family bonds, around the security of her “safe investment”, but even more so the security she receives from having happy and healthy children.  Shortly after this exposition, Aleck praises Sally for a smart investment move and he is said to be “poignantly happy”.  However, this show of joy is based around the positive interaction with his wife, not necessarily for the money.

The next mention of happiness does not come until a few chapters later.  It is, interestingly enough, during another instance in which Aleck is especially proud of Sally, and expresses her satisfaction with his latest investment with “a prideful toss of her happy head”.  There is another instance of the word in a later interaction between the two, and then the mention of being “happy” thins out. 

When Sally learns that a recent move has given them an immense lot of disposable income, he is described as being “happy beyond the power of speech”, but in the following paragraph is noted to be “crumbling”.  This sort of “happiness” is crippling them.  And later, the description of Aleck as “flattered and happy” is bordered by depictions of a Sally that is “bleary”, “fervent”, and “dizzy”.  The couple does not sound truly content and stable-- they sound ill.

The final interesting cluster of the word comes when Sally and Aleck believe that they have secured marriages with their two daughters to wealthy men of royalty.  Sally is “profoundly happy”, but it is not because of any wealth that they marriages may add to their capital.  Her happiness stems from the security of her daughters, from the joy that a parent feels in providing for and protecting her children.

One of Sally’s last quotes really drives home the point of wealth as false happiness, as he muses “Vast wealth, acquired by sudden and unwholesome means, is a snare. It did us no good, transient were its feverish pleasures; yet for its sake we threw away our sweet and simple and happy life-let others take warning by us.”  He acknowledges wealth as a false and consuming happiness, and regrets the simple, happy life that he lost.

I guess all this has led me to question my own views on money and happiness.  Would I be satisfied with insane riches?  Would I know when to stop?  With all the pressure and potential that fortune offers, is true happiness even possible?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Girl Effect

I found the Girl Effect site through a friend working in DC for the semester.  It’s a nonprofit that targets 12-year-old girls before they can fall victim to forced marriages, prostitution, and drug use.  They seek to provide education and work opportunities so that girls can take charge of their lives and avoid lives of destitution and crime.

What struck me about this site in relation to Maggie was point that in the eyes of many cultures and communities, a 15-year-old girl is considered an adult woman.  Old enough for marriage and childbirth, old enough to support a family.  I look back on myself as a 15-year-old and am horrified by the thought of this.

It was interesting though, to see how Maggie tried to put on the pretenses of being an adult woman.  We discussed the “nesting” tendencies made impossible by the tenements that she attempted anyways with her wall decoration.  Amidst her brother’s violence and mother’s disorderly drunkenness, she seems the only organized and possibly parental figure in the picture.  However, in her incredibly naive approach to Pete, we see that she is indeed just a girl and nowhere near mature enough to handle her situation.  I feel like this contrast of the expectations placed on her and the reality of her abilities only adds to the overall sense of tragedy.

Powerlessness and Hopelessness in Maggie

In our class discussion on the presentation of poverty in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, I was particularly stuck on the idea of “hopelessness”-- in Maggie’s situation, and in the situation of the tenement housing overall.  I skimmed back through the novella and tried to identify points where Maggie may have been able to make a turn for the better, to follow a brighter, more hopeful path.  Sure enough, I couldn’t find anything.  I became frustrated by her lack of mobility, almost annoyed by her simple naiveté towards Pete and shameful return to her family.  Yet despite Maggie’s failings as a character, I couldn’t dislike her.

I realized on this second read-through that my biggest problem was not with Maggie’s character; it was with the situation overall.  Because of external factors in her environment-- lack of education, extreme poverty, disturbed family structure, and violence-- she was driven towards the “saving grace” that Pete seemed to represent.  It was no failing on her part that she should end up in that eerie final section, prostitution herself to strangers passing by.  Crane seems to place the blame for Maggie’s demise entirely on external factors.  Maggie makes few choices for herself, but the ones she does make are driven by societal failings, not any avoidable error on her part.

I do have one question, though.  Crane seems to construct Maggie as a vehicle of pity, a dramatic example of a pure young woman destroyed by her terrible environment.  However, Maggie’s final actions are prostitution and subsequent suicide, both of which typify immorality and sin.  How does he hope to have Maggie draw on the audience’s pity and sympathy if she ultimately assimilates into the immorality exemplified in the social and economic environment that brought her down?