Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Honoring Sarah Palin

Maybe I have her mixed up with Oprah Winfrey. I'm not in the right demographic to pay attention to either of them, but I did come across the fact of Winfrey starting up a new distribution channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network (her OWN the world network!), to start on cable and satellite TV.

With a somewhat snarky tone, Time Magazine makes note of who it is that watches Oprah and why. I guess they're still smarting that most readers have migrated over to the video-magazine format. As far as this under-informed reader knew, Oprah had only recently announced her retirement from her vastly successful television show.

Of course, that seemed unlikely, but was I the only one who'd already guessed that she would only do that as a way forward to bigger and better and more powerful ventures. Even as a reader now, you have to be a specialist, so I really have no idea what the entertainment insiders already knew that I didn't.

I appreciate Time Magazine's continued conscious and conscientious literacy, by the way. I'm sure it's not so highbrow as the New Yorker, or the Atlantic Monthly or Harpers; magazines which I'm far too unspecialized to take the time to read. Maybe I just simply don't want to be that much of an insider. Anyhow, it feels as though catching on to the special narrative style of each of those could only cut into both my book reading time and my book reading budget. Time gives me a good survey of what's going on, and doesn't seem to presume a thing about my identity.

They do, however, seem to presume a thing about the identity of the Big O's fans. OK, maybe there's a bigger O now, but I'm talking about Oprah. These are people who want to bask in the glow of her celebrity, and who are not so small minded as the Big Mama Grizzly's fans. Oprah makes ordinary people feel large minded, and capable not just to make sense of the world, but to be competent at its pinnacle once they get their chance, just as Oprah is.

Yes, as Time's tone implies, this celebrity craze goes too far and the people who spend too much time on it should learn to get on with their own lives. Still, you get the sense that Oprah does more good than harm overall. At least she's not in any known danger of wanting to run the country.

One thing that caught my attention in the Time announcement was their take on a new show to be featured on OWN, called Enough Already! with Peter Walsh. Ostensibly about decluttering your house, this show is really, Time assures us, about how to live in your own present, by clearing out 'two kinds of clutter:' "memory clutter," which recalls the past, and "I might need it" clutter, which anxiously anticipates the future.'

Well, you know this just resonates with me since I've been pretty intensely involved with cleaning out clutter in my own life. It isn't that fun, and it hasn't been easy. Cleaning out clutter is definitely not something I ever wanted or needed to do. What I needed to do was to move, however much more pleasant it would have been to stay put.

I don't really think the Oprah ethos would have anyone moving so smartly in the direction of Spartan as I've had to move. She probably has in mind that fabled empty executive desk, topped with an Apple, and with the rich wood grain showing all the time except when papers might need signing.

She's talking about celebrity decluttering, to a demographic made up of those who wish they could have celebrity makeovers, celebrity style consultants, and celebrity designers to guide their self-creation.

I've always prided myself on a fairly contained and only modestly growing collection of belongings. But when I recently vacated the one and only house I've ever owned, I did discover that stuff, just like work, expands to fill the space/time available for it. Smart executives work from a Spartan desk if they need to get stuff done. I am not a smart executive of my own life, I guess. (To be honest, when I did have an executive desk, it was always cluuttered.)

The biggest thing was my long campaigned wooden sailboat, and it's surrounding accouterments. That might have been all mixed up with my identity. The boat would be still sitting beside the house after it was occupied by the new owner, but for some hapless fellow not all that much younger than me allowed as how I might give it away to him.

There were all sorts of clothes which had documented my inevitable middle-aged sprawl, and useful stuff I pretty much gave to the new owner for pennies on the dollar. Tools, even, and a lot of furniture. After relocating back to the same apartment I lived in before the house, I still had too much stuff. Now I'm trying to get rid of as much of that as possible to complete my move to California.

I'm still not quite here yet, not having found a job and therefore unable to get health insurance, and so my apartment in Buffalo remains intact, if forlorn. And it leaves me still not having had to confront the main issues; the Christmas Tree ornaments collected across the years, the file cabinets, certain pieces of furniture I've had with me my entire life, even against all sorts of odds, and boxes worth of just plain stuff. It's not the "sentimental value." I think this stuff actually embodies my mind; all the little decisions one makes each and every day about what to save and what to discard.

I came out here with a carload at first, which was more than enough to keep me going and not missing anything at all. Having things available is not the same as having them with you, and it's easy enough to be away from "home" even for extended periods of time. But for me, home has probably always been a sprawling and extended collection of stuff, not all of which is in "my place."

Over the recent holidays I packed up 5 boxes of cherry picked books and notebooks - things which I thought  contained aspects of my self and mind which It would be difficult if not impossible to reassemble without them - and had them shipped out to my newer digs in California. It looks like I'm straddling two "homes" now.

Sure, it will remain as unlikely as it ever has been that I will ever re-open my old Chinese literature notebooks. Had I completed my entry into that field, these notebooks would already be buried beneath piles of subsequent production; of value to me only by virtue of their ability to contrast with my later and more sophisticated production.

As it is, I find that looking through them actually does recall circuits of my brain which I might easily have thought dead. But they come back to life in ways which would be impossible if I were to try to start over. Looking at my own actual handwriting brings back the actual moments of study and discovery.

Among the notebooks I left behind this time are collections from all my various careers. There are conference notes jotted when I was a private school headmaster or a technology administrator. There are classroom notes from the study of Comparative Education. These also recall parts of me, but parts I feel content to allow to fall away. Or maybe it's just that whatever I once did know in any of these fields would be so utterly obsolete and superseded that starting over would be the only way to get back into those games.

With Chinese literature, it's more a game of mastery at the basic level in ways that never will change. Whatever my career might be now in this last slide of my life, I do want it to be informed by my once and now re-enlivened study of Chinese traditions. Maybe that's because it's the only way out I've ever found from the conundrum of "progress." Where continuous improvement is meant always to lead to something new and better, but where also, therefore, the medicine we practice now and bet our lives on will surely be shown to be idiotic some day ever sooner rather than later.

It's nice to think that there's always something more to learn and a better self to become. But it's also nice to know that maybe it isn't necessary always to leave the familiar one behind. Medicine would be nicer if it were more like Chinese literature, with certain principles always enduring, though no two pieces could ever be the same.

I am glad for my study of education and my facility with technology, but these have failed to define me, or I have failed to invest myself in these fields. Is it that I never did fully see myself in these careers. Or were tthey what happened to me, and while I climbed on top of them, it was also seemingly random or unlucky happenstance which knocked me from my game. Well, same with Chinese literature.

Among the notebooks I was perusing while making my selection for shipping (equal to my weight and travelling steerage, these books still cost more to ship coast to coast than I do - weird!) was one which I just knew would satisfy a partial memory I've carried for maybe 20 years now. I had been attending an Independent School Management Institute about integrating and coordinating curricula, and had been struck by a section on "expert learning" and in particular had a memory of being alerted to a study of chess masters.

Over the years I've conducted Internet searches and asked knowledgeable people questions, but I was never able to find anything about this study, and I couldn't remember the excellent  teacher's reason for having brought it up. But I had apparently forgotten about the notebook. Perusing it recently after coming across it during my cherry picking expedition I just knew it would have my secret.

On maybe the fifth pass through, it finally did. Yes! It was about how chess masters can "read" a board, and will be able to tell in an instant if the pieces have been randomly (or inexpertly) placed. There is a meaning to the board, a telling of the expertise of the players and of the place in the game where the expert finds the board. This can't be taught directly. The only thing you can teach is the rules of the game. And then the student has to want to play.

I think that must also be the way that a person views the debris of his own life. To an interior decorator, maybe my stuff is all random. To someone with better taste, much of it will be clutter. But to the person who lives there, each item contains its own history, and when you let it go you might as well let your mind go the way my Dad's has. It will not remain a part of you. Being forever new and always in the present is not always a thing to be desired.

On the plane out here to California I finished reading this excellent book on Buffalo called City on the Edge. In its essence, I think the book opposes everything about the living-in-the-present-decorator-ethic. My home town Buffalo is presented as both victim and victimizer of itself across the years. It would repeatedly take giant sweeps across its scruffy architecture in an attempt to get out ahead of what the expensive seers from out of town assured it would be directions for the future.

In general, the book urges, Buffalo was the victim of Urban Renewal; the very same thing on a massive scale which makeover artists would have you do to your home. You can inhabit someone else's view of life, and adapt it for yourself. But in the process, you might destroy everything that makes you you.

The book's author, Mark Goldman, documents the many extravagant successes of Buffalo: in the arts, in music, in architecture, even in politics. But all of these have been subsumed beneath the collective finish by the turn of this still-new century, where Buffalo is the butt of jokes about impoverishment and lack of style in every dimension.

There is not a soul who lives in Buffalo who can't document his litany of regrets for the city. The Big U. should have been built downtown on the waterfront. The suburbs shouldn't have been allowed to cannibalize the culturals of the city. Regionalism should have overwhelmed home rule and competing jurisdictions sprawling toward the lowest common denominator. No mass transit would have been better than a partial realization of its vision in the form of a single underground line.

This sense of regret can get transported inward, until as a denizen of Buffalo you start to believe what outsiders already know; that in such a downtrodden and dingy place, it's unlikely that an interesting soul remains. Could have been great, but now the City of No Illusions, accepting itself as a might-have-been, leaves the Oprah life for elsewhere. To have remained behind at all, we must be losers all.

So many people have moved away from Buffalo. And in the moving, they must have faced the same thing that I do now - it simply isn't worth the money to take it all with you. Plus, you'd be bringing along your Buffalo style, or lack thereof. You'd be dragging along self doubts.

So here's the point. (There's always a point!) Ever since we all realized that there's something wrong with Kansas, thoughtful people have been trying to figure out what's up with politics that people believe and act on utterly unthoughtful certainties. Sarah Palinesque idiocies. Why???

The only cogent analysis I've come across is the one given by a well-known left coaster, George Lakoff, who divides the world of political predilection into those who value most the strict father vs. those who value a nurturing mother. And that simple distinction can explain - maybe it's the only thing that can explain - the bizarre lineup of political positions. Save the unborn but nuke Iran and death penalty to anyone who ought to be guilty but demonstrably might not be. Libertarian, but join the mob shouting down any liberal sentiments.

I don't know if anyone's remarked on this or not (that reading trouble I have) but surely it can't have escaped notice that the entire American experiment can be viewed as a giant filter to capture all the strict father types. We are people who have deserted our motherlands. We have quested for frontiers. We quake on the brink in California, well, except that there is one place further. Alaska!

Sarah Palin's Alaska (I am vaguely aware that there is a show by that name, and I even caught a part of it once, but it was so far fetched that I couldn't believe that anyone would or could take it as real). That's where the Mama Grizzlies are stricter than strict fathers. Or to paraphrase Jack Nicholson in some movie or other, a strict mother is just like a strict father, but take away the honor.

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