Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On Downton and Happy Endings

IF YOU'VE still not seen the series finale of Downton Abbey, I'll ruin it by saying everything turns out splendid. I counted at least seven actual or hinted-at couplings. A new business is formed. A wildly 'advantageous' marriage is made. Everyone stays alive.

By any standards this is an audaciously cheerful outcome, but it is particularly so for a show that often wallowed determinedly in gloom. Through six seasons we suffered world war, unjust imprisonment, shocking deaths, familial feuding.

The final season cleverly foreboded all the things that could go horribly wrong. The earl of Grantham bursts an ulcer, splattering blood on the dinner china; Barrow slits his wrists in the bathtub; Henry is terribly near a fatal race car crash—but all survive. 

In the final episode Anna makes everyone nervous, bopping about with maidly efficiency when she's eight and a half months pregnant and feeling unwell. Her water breaks and she says, This doesn't seem right, giving us all flashbacks to Sybil. But the final moments of the series find her abed, glowing, holding the bairn alongside proud Bates. The couple who voiced reasonable doubts about whether lasting good could ever come to their lives get to be ridiculously happy.

HAPPY ENDINGS are often considered cheap. Tragedy is more artistically respectable. But as any Jane Austen fan knows, a well-woven happy ending is heftily satisfying and a great narrative feat. Such brightness creates an especially lovely contrast among the English, whose dourness the Dowager Countess of Grantham, in the final episode, explains by saying, I blame the weather.

It may well be easier to strike characters with tragedy to buy easy narrative gravitas, rather than go to the effort of creating a plausible happy ending. But the thing is, sometimes life does actually go absurdly well. Rarely, perhaps, but it happens. Why not end there?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Disappointing Femaleness of Hillary Clinton

THE BEST reason to vote for Hillary Clinton is, apparently, that she is a woman. Who is wowed by her platform, record, leadership? And yet, much as I would love to see a woman become president, it would crush my soul for Hillary Clinton to be that woman. (It would also crush my soul to have a terrible president for 4-8 years, and as that is a likely alternative I'm braced for heartbreak in any case.)

It would crush my soul because Hillary Clinton does not own her femaleness. She dons and doffs it in that shape-shifting manner aptly called Clintonesque. When she hopes to prove her capability she sheds femininity, wearing her dour Serious Face, and when she hopes to demonstrate kindly relatability she puts on a softened, grandmotherly smile. Neither feels genuine. She wears her pantsuits not in a badbitch-butch Ellen DeGeneres way, but as if aiming for the least-offensive common denominator.

Where is the pride in electing a woman as president if her demeanor conveys the message that being powerful must mean acting like a man?

It dismays me, too, that we call her by her first name, since her last name is, well, kinda already taken. I find this symbolically fraught, an uncomfortably unfeminist reminder that she is ever in the shadow of that other one. She occasions much use of "in her own right," a meekly complimentary phrase whose accidental patronizing grates on my ears.

HILLARY EMITS a vibe of obligatory sisterhood. She nudges, like, Don't forget: I'm female! It would be historic! This seems in rather poor taste. Is it not more honorable, more feminist to want to be measured on the merits?

Barack Obama got no easy pass with African American voters in 2008. On the contrary, they were pointedly skeptical of any assumption that Obama repped them by default. He had to earn that support, in part by demonstrating that he truly had grappled with and got what it means to be a black American. Clinton should be held to the same standard. Has she truly grappled with what it means to be a woman in an often anti-feminine society? If not, why should she presume she represents me, or any woman?

Hillary came up in an era when it was extremely rare and difficult to be a woman in power, and seems never to have transcended the contradictory weirdness and defensive posturing inherent to that struggle. She never found her individually-crafted path to female power as did other trailblazers of her generation, like Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ann Richards, Nancy Pelosi.

This is not whatsoever to say all female people ought to be girly. (If Rachel Maddow ran for president I'd steal identities and vote ten times.) It's about being one's authentically gendered self. Hillary Clinton's authentic self is notoriously elusive. And nothing about her sends the message, You can be whatever kind of woman you want to be, and be powerful. Michelle Obama telegraphs that every time she opens her mouth, or bares her elegantly muscled arms.

Hillary Clinton is not, to borrow Maya Angelou's lovely phrase, 'a woman phenomenally.' She is a woman hesitantly, awkwardly, convolutedly, focus-groupedly. There are rich, beautiful possibilities in female leadership. Hillary, alas, does not embody them.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Good, the Bad, the Throwback

WHEN A throwback station hit the Bay this summer it answered a prayer I didn’t know I had. Who’d been doing market research in my brain? Yes, I want to hear Big Tymers’ “Still Fly” and E-40’s “Rapper’s Ball.” No, I don’t want to hear another Big Sean song. Thank you for being so responsive to my needs, throwback radio! When I was driving home and “Ms. Fat Booty” came on I nearly wept for joy.
This honeymoon could not last. I knew it was over when Q 102 played “It Was a Good Day” and my car companion changed the station, saying, “I’m sick of that song.”
Sick of it? That song? The disarmingly melodious strains of Cube’s classic, emerging serendipitously from the radio, have long been my harbinger of a good day to come. This magic began twenty years ago, when my clock radio nudged me from slumber with Just waking up in the mornin, gotta thank God. I had a bangin hair day, got an A on a geometry test and smiled reciprocally at a cute boy.
Imagine my despair upon realizing that, actually, I too was sick of it.
EVEN THE best music is ruined by excessive play–in fact the best music is likeliest to suffer that fate. There were thousands upon thousands of hip hop tracks made between, say, 1985 and 2005 (the approximate “throwback” timeframe), but inevitably radio, in its maddening, consumer-tested, none-shall-change-the-station way, hones in on a tiny number and plays them to death. At least with current radio the limited selection is constantly updating. You hear “Wet Dreamz” until it’s spent and then “Hotline Bling” rotates in. Not so with oldies. They get canonized. Some stat geek determines that practically everybody loves “Hypnotize” and “Gin and Juice” and those tracks go in the Play At All Times pile. A formula is set. And we all start to hate the songs we love most.
Throwback radio is the emerging beast of the airwaves nationwide. It’s a nifty way to target us crotchety thirty-somethings (with our presumable money to blow), who hobble about, muttering, “Who is this Fetty Wap feller anyway? Play another Dre track!” Like bubblegum oldies and classic rock, throwback is a deft repackaging of old music, tapping into nostalgia with a precision both infuriating and irresistible.
I DON’T resist. I have many moments of throwback bliss. They usually come when non-robot Scotty Fox is in the mix, during high listenership hours. On a recent Saturday afternoon I vibed my way to the gym on “Next Episode” mixed into “Go” mixed into “Just Kickin It” and life was good. But I’m wary now. I hear Pac’s voice and quickly change the station, lest his soul rebellion lose its power. Some things must remain sacred.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Dark Tunes from The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey sounds wet-eyed in her new single, singing, I lost myself/When I lost youIt's a far cry from the usual kiss-off playlists, whose standard message is embodied in Beyonce's classic "Irreplaceable": I could have another you in a minute. The snarling kiss-off is meant to be empowering, but that equates power with bitchy invulnerability and blame-dumping, with a little man-hating thrown in for spice.

Lana does not do bitchy invulnerability. "Terrence Loves You" is equal parts sadness and acceptance (Youuuuuuuuu aaaaaaaaaare/What you are) and no parts righteous indignation. 

Undoubtedly her critics will deride the notion of losing oneself in a relationship's end as disgustingly weak and self-misogynizing. But we do find ourselves through love. And when love ends we must find new selves, yet again. I still got jazz, she sings, a hint of triumph.

Lana lets her heart break. That's real power.

The Weeknd sings about love and tenderness, but he's not really about all that. His voice vibrates most in sinful subject matter; like some evil fungi he thrives in dark places. He really digs into those swamps and excavates, using an unlikely combination of erudition, falsetto and meanness.

He plays a self-aware asshole on "The Hills," which is far more resonant than his other radio hit, "Earned It," on which he plays nice. The "Hills" beat is as bombastic as any Dirty South banger and drops into the hook like it's falling off a cliff: I only call you when it's half past five/The only time that I'll be by your side. Dude is badly using half-past-five chick and he knows it. The drugs are "feelin like it's decaf" and the hazy lyrics might be regretful, unrepentant or just amoral. But they do cop to bad behavior, which is pretty original among the heaps of lyrics in which women are badly used and it's too unremarkable to merit thought.

The only love in this song flutters in at the end with a female voice singing sweet nothings in Amharic. The Weeknd seems to be winning World's Most Famous Habeshah, and he is catching up to Drake in the category of Depressive Realness with Infectious Beats.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Rabbits! (And Related Reflections)

I GOT rabbits. And thus have I graduated from average urban farmgirl to full maniac. These are farmstead animals, employed members of my backyard system. I'm not going to eat them. They're fiber rabbits.

Fiber rabbits! A few years ago I didn't know there was such a thing. Fiber rabbits belong to a special category of utilitarian farm animals that are adorable and don't have to die. That would be along with milkers, egg layers, bees, guardian animals and non-rabbit fiber animals like sheep. As a sensitive wuss vegetarian and farmstead enthusiast I really appreciate this category.

Even with the egg layers and dairy animals some loss of life must take place. Boy goats and roosters don't make eggs and milk, but eggs and milk cannot be produced without their existing at some point (as breeders or offspring) creating a conundrum most readily solved by someone--not a sensitive wuss vegetarian--eating them. Fiber animals of both sexes give humans something nice without anyone having to die. 

THERE ARE those who believe using other animals for any selfish human purpose is wrong. Animals exist for their own reasons, they say, suggesting we leave them to it. And I fear these presumable vegans are right, though I selfishly hope they are not entirely right. The thorny fact is that laying hens and milk cows and fluffball sheep would not exist without our having bred them into existence. So I think maybe technically, for better or worse, they exist for reasons inextricably bound to us. Same goes for dogs, cats, roses and most things we eat. 

All this human selection is a tremendous responsibility. There is a legitimate argument to be made that it is cruel to breed sheep and rabbits so heavily furred that they depend on us to regularly relieve them of their coats, or poultry who cannot survive the wild. I don't know yet whether I can adequately justify taking advantage of such breeding, but nor am I convinced of its inherent wrongness. 

Animal rights sorts aren't the only skeptics of agriculture, of course. It is rather hip in certain circles to pine for hunter gatherer days--paleo eating and squatting to defecate and all that. Some people find it more honest to hunt or trap a wild animal than befriend, cohabit with and take advantage of a domestic one. I respect that way of thinking, but take a different view. And not just because I love cheese and bread and tomatoes and wool and a bunch of other things agriculture makes possible.

I THINK agriculture is beautiful. Done right. Joel Salatin is fond of saying that good agriculture should be 'aesthetically and aromatically, sensually romantic.' Good agriculture can give its participants bliss. I recently grew a buckwheat cover crop on one of my raised beds and watched my hens tear it up. In that moment was bliss--theirs and mine. They clucked self-actualization as they turned the soil for my fall crops.

Agriculture is a millenia-long collaboration among humans and other species. It's bold, messy and morally complex. It has the capacity to be epically destructive: to the land and to the lives of all who work for or eat from it. So even when you have a postage stamp city homestead, producing piddling quantities of anything, there is much to consider.

And consider I do! The ethics, the economics. I fret myself silly until I decide to go ahead and see if I can, say, keep a pair of Angora rabbits happy and healthy in my yard, and make clothes from their spare fur without ever hurting them, and actually come out ahead when I crunch the numbers. I weigh the costs of housing, organic pellets, grains for sprouting fodder against the benefits of making myself and everyone I know dope luxury scarves and hand warmers of absurd softness. From my own freaking bunnies! I think the numbers look good. We shall see.

My buns are two months old now, learning the ropes along with me: when to hop about the yard and when to rest and digest in the safe hutch, how to relax into my grooming attentions, why collaborating with my wishes is worthwhile (treats!). I was at their conception. I met them hours after their birth.

Luckily I have had about six months to practice on my neighbors' English Angoras, one of whom birthed my own bunny bairns. They have taught me rabbit ways, rabbit treat preferences, how not to offend. (I did not realize this, but rabbits are easily offended.) They shed, I brush them, I accumulate luscious heaps of Angora wool. I watch Netflix, I spin the wool on a drop spindle, I knit the yarn into items of clothing, I wear the clothing. Every part of the process is meditative and gratifying.

THERE ARE other perks. I take very seriously my role as a curator of cuteness in this world. And goodlord: it's almost unbearable how plush these wooly bunny bodies are. The creatures themselves are wonderful much like Angora scarves are. Fluff comfort. The purest kind of soft.

The rabbits eat things neither the chickens nor I particularly care for, like kale stems. And they love to chill in shady nooks neither the chickens nor I can squeeze into. They produce tidy, round fertilizer nuggets that can be applied directly. I am starting to see their niche in the backyard ecosystem.

As I look upon my yard these days--hens laying, bees foraging, bunnies furring, corn looming, beans working the pole--I am amazed at all the creation. Maybe humans love agriculture because it makes us feel like God. But I'm not sovereign over my yard. I'm just semi-competent designer slash manager. I'm in awe of what is going on back there, the crazy way all of us creatures are making something together.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Good Old Thug Love Duet

REMEMBER the video for "I'm Real"? JLo in hoops, bun, pink velour jumpsuit, smiling over how real she is. Ja Rule in a white do-rag, growling Ja Rule-isms. It epitomizes a classic rap sub-genre: the thug love duet.

Turn-of-the-millennium thug love duets have a bubblegum quality that predates the darkly complex sex-love relations of the Drake era. Think of Cam'Ron's bouncy "Hey Ma" or Jay and Bey's "'03 Bonnie & Clyde," from before she was Ms. Carter.

IT'S A WORLD where men rap hard and ladies sing nice. The guys are wild and profane, but the women are endlessly sweet, holding them down with smiling hooks. Down to ride to the very end. Thug love duets are about badboys and the good girls who love them; only the earnest heart of the good girl can melt a thug. All I need in this life of sin.

Undisputed princess of the genre is almond-eyed Ashanti. She mighta been singing "Foolish" over these fools later, but she made an ideal thug lover, her innocent smile the perfect foil for rapper grimaces.

The ladies aren't just relegated to hook duty these days; they rap hard as the dudes when they feel like. Thug love bangers may be naughtily retrograde, but they are so delicious. It's that polarity of masculine and feminine, hard contrasted against soft, plus a notion of love that's wonderfully simple: opposites attract.

Listen to my Thug Love Duets playlist