Friday, December 26, 2008

I give up, what was the big story of the week?

Open Salon's theme for Saturdays/weekends is big story, "your take on the big stories of the week." I must confess that, with Saturday looming tomorrow -- or rather not looming but sort of puffing up nicely, since I have the day off, pillowing up like the pillow I intend to sleep late on, or like a puffy warm pancake you might make for a treat for yourself at 10 am on a glorious Saturday -- with Saturday at any rate being tomorrow, I am left to wonder what I would post on, if I knew the big stories of the week.

Now there's a confession. I don't much follow the "mainstream media" anymore, so I don't know what it considers important recent affairs. I've been busy with my first week at a new job, but I don't present that as an excuse for wandering attention. I simply have, at long last, almost entirely abandoned the mainstream media deliberately, as an intellectual choice. This will sound either comically lofty or comically pathetic, probably depending on one's political views, but there it is. And as I seem to recall quoting the Chicago Tribune or Newsweek even when I was a dutiful girl diarist of thirteen or fourteen, having untied the apron strings and gone floating now does feel odd.

It's the internet revolution to blame, of course. I've noticed. But I started seriously and utterly drifting away from the media this summer, when professional journalism's deification of Barack Obama went into hyperdrive; and after one thing and another, the last straw was a news broadcast on ABC radio just a few days ago. The breathless teaser "new revelations on Obama's links to Blagojevich coming up at 4:00" was followed only by the announcement that the President-elect's staff, and his lawyer, had discovered no wrongdoing or impropriety of any kind where Senate-seat selling in Illinois was concerned.

That was the news, announced by one of the old Big Three networks, by Charles Gibson himself. The Chicago Tribune repeated it in its headline of Wednesday, December 24: Internal review clears staffers: Emanuel role called innocent, appropriate. If you want to delve into this story's paragraphs 8 and following on page 13 -- right across from Obama's farewell to grandmother and Lincoln Bible set for inaugural -- you may plow through a few hints at discrepancies and "inconsistencies" regarding the headline's baptismal cleansing of Obama. "Craig said Balanoff told Jarrett that Blagojevich mentioned the possibility of the governor becoming Obama's secretary of health and human services," etc. (this is paragraph 19). How many people are heroic enough to parse that? It's what's "above the fold" that matters. Internal review clears Obama. Everything's fine. The end. If Barack Obama were a Republican, if he were Hillary Clinton, if he were any other person on the planet, a story like this would have been pursued so fiercely that his very inauguration would now be in doubt.

So, I get my news elsewhere. It's not pique. This is serious. I have no reason to trust or be interested in what interests the professional people who have essentially long since given themselves over to celebrating and chronicling Barack Obama's magnificence, plus the happy life of the Obama royal family. (My my, when will they buy that puppy?) What are the courtiers not reporting while they carry on doing their jobs as if this were North Korea and Dear Leader's life and splendidness was the joyous All? George Will (I satisfactorily disclose myself thereat, I suppose), puts it well when he says the twenty-first century's new technology simply "allows people to choose their own universe of commentary, which takes us far from the good old days when everyone had the communitarian delight of gathering around the cozy campfire of the NBC-ABC-CBS oligopoly" ("Reactionary liberals assault the media,", December 7th, 2008).

Yes, I choose my own universe of commentary. I don't see why what I know, or what falls within my notice, is any less significant than what paid courtiers know, or are willing to transmit.

Here's some of my universe. Tom Wark over at Fermentation is talking about direct sales of liquor to retailers, restaurants, and consumers, something wholesale distributors do not like and fight against tooth and nail in every state legislature they can, frankly, buy. Test your current-events savvy: what do you know about Granholm v. Heald (2005)?

A few days ago, another commentator in my personal universe had a striking thing to say. He said, whenever some people are dependent on the government to live their daily life, they will also inevitably look around, inevitably see people who are better off than they are -- probably because they themselves are not dependent -- and will inevitably believe "the system is rigged." And then what or who, or whose promises, will they vote for? A striking summation, and yes, from Rush Limbaugh.

I had also never heard before -- not until I abandoned newspapers this summer and started getting my news wherever I like -- of the related theory, attributed it seems to science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, that once enough people in a democracy learn to vote themselves goodies out of the national treasury, the democracy is in simple account-book trouble. If you google "Robert Heinlein vote themselves goodies" you can find a bare-bones discussion site, bbsfreetalklive, from August 2006. Here one "Mikehz" teaches that a republic is meant to enshrine laws that prevent people from democratically voting to bleed the nation white, as well as from voting private rights, like the right to smoke, away from their fellows. This is an entirely new idea to me, and I'm a college graduate. Is "Mikehz" to be trusted? Is Charlie Gibson? One makes me think; the other announces what Barack Obama's lawyer says.

What else do I know this week? Willow Manor has introduced me to a gorgeous painting, Our Lady of the Fruits of the Earth, by an artist I had never heard of before, Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1958). At Open Salon, Dr. Amy Tuteur of Skeptical O.B. writes most interestingly of medicine, most recently of "vaccine rejectionism" among parents for whom this faith "is about the parents and how they would like to see themselves, not about vaccines and not about children." And then just this week I read Stanley Kauffmann's article in Horizon's Spring, 1973 issue, about Sergei M. Eisenstein's classic silent movie Battleship Potemkin. The amount of film the genius director shot was originally meant to comprise a huge project called The Year 1905, "dealing with the events of the earlier, unsuccessful outbreak against czarism, ... but in the cutting room it was the Potemkin story alone that emerged."

More? There's a sumptuous design blog called Diana: Muse. Her post of December 24th explains who wrote the lyrics to O Holy Night (he was a wine seller, answering his parish priest's call to write a poem for Christmas Eve), and then leads readers to a Christmas recording of the song that I had never heard of, Leontyne Price's 1961 collaboration with Herbert von Karajan and the "silky" Vienna Philharmonic. Another design blog, This is Glamorous, is a portal into -- I believe this -- a lifetime of exploration in design, fashion, and lovely things generally. And then that same issue of Horizon had an article by Peter Quennell on Johnson's and Boswell's journey through Scotland, which reminds me that I've still got the Life of Johnson sitting on my shelves, unabridged, dipped into but not read.

It could be argued that we can all tot up a list of favorite blogs and books, and fritter away our lives in trivia while important things are happening in the world. But what important things, and according to whom? I take it there's something going on in Gaza; a headline about ultimatums from Israel to Hamas crops up from AP when I log into my e-mail. Is AP staffed by the same people telling me that Dear Leader has been cleared by his own internal review? Thanks, I'll look into any Middle East stories on my own later.

The trouble with choosing a universe of my own commentary, a la George Will, is that so far the loss of my business, or yours, hasn't put a dent in the mainstream professionals' power to define events. It's claimed that no one pays attention to them, and it's true their revenues are falling and they are laying people off and declaring bankruptcy. But curiously, they remain entirely relevant. I can look at Diana:Muse and enjoy myself and feel privately liberated, but come January my President will still be an untried man of impoverished thinking whose short path to power was fanatically carved out and protected for him by professional mainstream journalism. My fellow voters who "just want change" did the rest. He'll have four or possibly eight years to impoverish the country as any other pampered, jejune left-wing academic could only dream of doing. And there was nothing anyone could do about his deification, except vote long after it had been accomplished -- which looked like a pitiful and so very antique option amid the joy-filled hysteria. Conservative talk radio, the lively and questioning blogosphere, could follow events but in the end lacked the official credentials to shape events. And look to lack it for a long time to come. Their competitors are not going to hand out press passes to them.

So what is the point of the free citizen not paying attention to an information system that can deliver the American presidency to its own, manufactured god? Ignoring this power is not the same thing as having a comparable power. For the moment. Perhaps, just perhaps, this era and this victory will prove mainstream journalism's last hurrah. I suppose that if they really do run out of money, through you and I no longer forking over our 75 cents a day to follow the news of their careers, they will have to close up their multiple shops and this enormous leftist voice will be stilled. And then ... what will be the news of the day?

Whatever we say it is. How odd. This week, liquor laws, the battleship Potemkin, Leontyne Price, and the poetry of Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure (O Holy Night). Next week, who knows? Nietzsche is supposed to have said, and I forget where I learned this, that the newspaper had replaced the prayer in daily middle-class life. If he was right, that speaks volumes on what we have wanted The News to provide for us every day: a communion, a worldview, a sacrament, always fresh, right, and repeatable. Above all, relevant. Can a million completely personal universes of commentary really provide all that?

It will have to. I've started mine. Not only because -- if -- the "MSM" is in its fevered death throes, but because the alternative for as long as it survives is to look forever out the windows of its house, someone else's house, someone who isn't particularly concerned with the state of the foundation and absolutely doesn't care what you think of the view. No, I'll be going, if you don't mind. Don't get up -- I'll see myself out.

Monday, December 15, 2008


"There is all the difference between seeing things and seeing nothing. Many travelers who see things really see nothing, and many who see nothing see a great deal."

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

(Spot the moon)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Best friends

Friendship, it strikes me, is a very odd thing. I suppose I had better take the hint, and leave Melissa alone. She has not responded to a list of dates I gave her for potential meetings (just like Lucia and Mr. Somerset Maugham) and now, I would imagine, she is suffering her famous and socially paralyzing "guilt." Far be it from me to add to it. How odd to think that this could be the end of contact between us.

Of course I am not surprised that after twenty-five years, old school chums should have little in common, but I am always perplexed as to what makes friendships work. We are very much alike, she and I. Maybe that's a problem.

I went out Friday night with Nina, and Debbi and Debi, and Maria, who is not quite the cipher in the group that I am. It's a little like watching a live sitcom for four hours. They just talk and talk. I almost literally cannot get a word in edgewise. They are beginning to repeat stories of colonoscopies and mammograms, and Debbi must have forgotten that she has already told us of the two hundred and fourteen cortisone injections to her head, to combat the stress-induced hair loss she suffered when her eldest was preparing to go away to school. We got that tale again. Five bald spots, each the size of a dime, four thousand hairs per spot, the doctor said. When I stayed quiet long enough, they said "poor Nancy" in that tone reserved for young people bored by their ill elders. But I am their contemporary.

And they still eagerly share stories about arguing with their teen daughters over clothing choices and hairstyles, and about following their teen daughters' friends' Facebook pages and putative sex lives. Debi told of marching to the town hall to ask what she could do to help while the town was flooding. The men filling sandbags were not impressed with her, so she went to rescue her aunt instead. Then she made her daughters go fill sandbags the next day. Last time we got together, she had stories of badgering some authority figure in a bank to compel him to offer her a discount rate that had expired but that she wanted anyway. "I beat them at their own game," she said, "I just kept on asking to see a higher manager." And her beautiful bell-like laugh rang out, then, too. "I got through three levels of authority."

It seems that people who are capable of holding the floor and talking endlessly are also the ones most capable of friendships. And yet that personality type would seem to be the one not interested in people, and therefore unfriendly. The four of them are planning, again, to go to Nina's condo in Florida for a weekend. (They have never yet actually gone.) On the one hand, I'm tempted to go. On the other, I would not dream of going. Two and a half days of listening to them talk. No. But I'll bet they'll have fun.

There are people with whom I have broken contact, or not maintained contact, people who, once again, would seem obviously compatible with me. The sweet country mouse types, though I loathe thinking of myself in that light. So I know (back to the top of the page) what it is to do what Melissa is essentially doing. Breaking contact, and no ill will intended. "I'm just not that into you." But I do also keep reaching out -- I think -- to incompatible women, because they are there and they are my most recent associations, and without them I would know no one except my family and my in-laws. Yet I would not dream of closing the deal, so to speak, of sharing some sort of heart-to-heart with Nina, or Debbi or Debi or Maria. I wonder if they do that with one another?

Then there is Sandra, my ex-boss. The one who always clapped her hand over her mouth whenever she swore in front of me, giggling that she feared to corrupt me. "I don't want to lose your friendship," she said. Fine. We are not compatible at all, but I was the last one to, once again, offer her a possible lunch date when she asked for one. She has not responded. That's perfectly fine, natural. (What on earth would we talk about? Ex-work? Cuss words?) The last time I saw her, she came into the store talking on her cell phone, in the midst of planning a drinking date with a girlfriend. Her voice was so easy, warm, and happy. It made me wonder, as always, what do people see in each other? What do they say? I know, talking of old school chums, that Melissa has always maintained a friendship with Janet and with Linda, too, come to think of it. Across and through the twenty-five years. Calls them on the phone and visits them, visited Linda and stayed with her at her house while Linda was going through a divorce, no less. Melissa actually witnessed some of the fights, and silently took the husband's part. Incredible. What are they giving and receiving?

I know full well that I have puzzled over this since I was a teenager, when friends like Melissa used to ask casually "what I was doing this week" and I would respond with instinctive wariness, fearful that they were laying a trap and wanted me to go do some wild thing. I know full well that the answer to my friendship questions has always been directly under my nose. I am a writer and a reader, and if I wanted a huge and bubbly circle of friends I would have had one many times over by now. It can just seem, sometimes, that all the women in the world who have friends pass one by, smiling, and caress one's head absently like a pet, before attending to their real interests and to the wonderful rich secret-code joys of their friendships.

Rain. An e-mail pops up. If it's from Melissa, to arrange a dinner date, then all the above is negated, and one starts over.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Tudor Year: December

Theme: clothes

Queen Catherine Parr, sixth wife of King Henry VIII. (Formerly identified as Jane Seymour.) National Portrait Gallery, London. From Tudor History

Hans Holbein, Portrait of an Unknown Young Man at his Office Desk. 1541. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. From Olga's Gallery.

Albrecht Durer, Portrait of the Artist's Mother. 1514. Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin. From Olga's Gallery

December 8th -- birth of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542)
December 13th -- Francis Drake sails from Plymouth to attempt circumnavigation of the globe (1577)
December 16th -- birth of Catherine of Aragon (1485)

The Christmas holidays ushered in the "greatest concentration" of Days of Estate, those feast days of the Church which were also marked by elaborate ceremony at court. The royal family heard Mass, dined in public, and wore their most splendid clothes on these days. The sumptuous look of portraits of the time, showing upper class men and women in rich velvets, furs, brocades, and jewels, might make us forget the one comfort that almost all Tudors lacked -- cheap and easily washed cotton clothing, especially cotton underwear. Cotton came (if at all) from the fabulous east, from Egypt and India, and the labor required to make cotton into thread and then cloth rendered the finished product as expensve as fur. Wool was the fabric of necessity for ordinary people, and wool clothes were absolutely precious enough to be bequeathed in wills. The Western world would have to wait for a combination of factors to come together - among them the slave trade, the opening up of the American South to cotton planting, and Eli Whitney's cotton gin -- before really comfortable and hygienic clothing became a norm in life.

George Edwin Fussell, The English Rural Labourer: His Home, Furniture, Clothing, and Food from Tudor to Victorian Times. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975. Originally published by the Batchworth Press, London, 1949, pp. 14-16.
David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. New York: Harper Collins, 2003, p. 233.