Blog Aesthetics

When Miss J. was down here and took me to lunch for my birthday, we were talking about how cool it might be to teach a class on blogs, being as she is on her way to being the world’s most awesome English professor. (It just occurred to me, when she gets her PhD, I will be able to call her Dr. J. How awesome is that?!)

Of course, I think it would be–both to call my dear friend Dr. J. and to have a class on blog aesthetics. I’d love to publish a book of blog theory. Sadly, I’m sure Johns Hopkins or MIT or Minnesota will be the first to do so. Still, I can’t wait and I hope some of you academics are already on this.

Meanwhile, I’d like to talk about the aesthetics of one of my favorite blogs. Unfortunately, I promised the author I wouldn’t. Fortunately, he’s not around at the moment to hunt me down and kick my ass. But still, in an effort to maintain the frith between us, I’m not going to name names or cite particularities from his blog.

Instead, I want to talk about the work humor does and the kinds of work I think the unnamed blog does. Here at Tiny Cat Pants, one of the important, revolutionary things I’m doing is not at all for any of you; it is just for me. Growing up as I did, a lot of emphasis was put on not putting yourself out there, not writing things down for fear that they would come back and bite you in the butt, and not being too unpleasant or loud or obnoxious or bossy. Some of this had to do with the peculiarities of our situation and some of this just had to do with “proper” behavior for women.

There’s a way that, in order to be a good woman, you feel like you have to always put your best face forward, that you have to smooth things over and nurture everyone and not upset anyone. I’ve got that deeply ingrained in me. I’m really, often, afraid that being open and honest about my pride and joy and successes and my fears and failures and insecurities will cause you all to not like me. I don’t mean specifically you particular people. I mean, the whole world.

One really interesting and empowering thing that happens for me as a writer is that I’ll write something, say about my family, and I’ll think “No, I can’t say that. That’s not proper. That’s not something I can talk about in public. Shit, this will be the thing that finally shows people what a needy, terrible freak I am and this, this will be the thing that causes them not to like me.”

But it doesn’t. What I learn, continually, is that being open and thoughtful and honest, even if it means being vulnerable and uncertain and afraid and letting others see that vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear, is good, at least, good for me. That there is nothing about my honest attempts at engaging with the world that would cause other good people to shun me.

Still, in order to really get what’s going on at Tiny Cat Pants, you probably should be aware that part of what I’m doing is searching for that line. How far in can I let you and still feel comfortable and okay and safe, even if writing it and putting it out there is terrifying? How close can I let you get and have you still recognize our shared experience as humans?

The thing that I think is really genius about the other blog is that I think that author is trying to find the far boundary. How far can I push you away and have you still recognize our shared experiences as humans? What can I say to both put you off and knock you off-guard? What can I say that is so outrageous that you’re alarmed by both what I say and the shock of recognizing that you’ve almost said it (or have said it) as well?

So, then, the question for the hypothetical blog theorists is “To what end?” What purpose does that kind of blogging serve?

Take for instance, our recent discussion about Egalia’s mess. The comments go on for a while very seriously and then someone says, “Oh just shut-up, and take your top off.” I laughed so hard the first time I read this, but I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s hard for me to articulate why it works.

Why is it so funny to me? It’s two-fold. One is that extreme risk the commenter takes in even making the comment. He knows he’s saying the very thing almost everyone reading those comments least wants to or expects to read (but is afraid will come up). He’s also got to know that a great many people aren’t going to know that he’s trying to be funny or they’re going to get that he’s trying to be funny, but not find it funny at all. The risk he takes thrills me as a reader.

Then there’s the unknown element. Is he parodying the very attitudes we’ve been complaining about? Is he mocking the men who would make them seriously? Or is he mocking us? Or is he trying to diffuse the tension? Or what?

Well, okay, maybe it’s three-fold. It’s also funny because, of all the things I listed about ways discussions about feminism go, I accidentally left out “being reduced to and dismissed because of one’s sex organs,” even though the whole post centered around the controversy over the term “breasted Clinton.” The commenter shows that he’s clearly aware of that strategy of dismissiveness, but instead of just saying “you forgot the ‘show us your tits’ contingent,” he enacts it.

I find that incredibly brave and hilarious, because, wow, could that go wrong.

Anyway, one of the most interesting things that goes on over on the blog that shall not be named is the complex set-up of some of the posts. It’s supposed to be funny (I think, maybe he’s just really an asshole) and so there’s the opening shocking thing, the buildup and the pithy resolution. But always, I find that the thing that sticks with me, the real nugget of true or funny or outrageous is elsewhere in the post. It’s just a moment where something really genuine transcends the jerky, off-putting persona.

Hmm. Let’s get at this from another angle. (Cindy, if you mind, let me know.) Take Cindy St. Onge and her post on vaginal teeth. The whole thing is shocking and thought-provoking and outrageous and very, very funny. But just when you least expect it, she cuts right through all that and smacks you right in the heart: “May every wild thing of this earth bare fierce teeth.”

You can see what I mean when you read it, that you’re going along all funny and political and then she really gets you. It’s like you start from the position of considering something along side her, your position as reader is equal to hers as writer; she’s just telling you something interesting that you’re both going to be outraged but laughing about, and then she turns right towards you, dear reader, and points a lupine finger right in your chest and says “My freedom needs to be protected, violently, if necessary.”

She is the wolf in grandma’s clothing*, ready to eat old women and mothers who send their precious young girls into the woods alone and the snotty girl in the red cape and the woodsman out destroying her habitat if she has to. And, wow, it’s an incredible moment, precisely because it’s so sharp.

The unnamed blogger goes about this from the other direction. As a reader, you stand in direct opposition to him. He’s the man in wolf’s skin (which is important to get, that his whole persona is about pretending to be everything we fear ordinary white men are) spouting off at the mouth. So, when that moment comes, where you see the man in the wolf’s suit, it’s pretty shocking–you as reader come colliding into him. You don’t just stand next to him in those moments, you’re practically perched on his shoulder.

Do you like the view? What does that mean if you do?

*This is a metaphor. It implies nothing about Cindy’s age or style of dressing. It has to do with her manipulation of archetypes, or is intended to, at least.

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Question for the Dog Owners

Mrs. Wigglebottom is, right now, barking in her sleep. She’s sound asleep, not opening her mouth, but she’s over there “mffmffmff,” silence, “mffmffmff.” Have you ever heard of such a thing?

I would love to know what she’s dreaming of when she’s barking in her sleep.

Also, she’s cut her paw. It’s not very deep, but she was being all funky about it at the park, until I looked at it, and then she seemed to be just fine. Is it possible she just wanted some sympathy?

Hmm. I really need a pet psychic to start reading Tiny Cat Pants. Start networking, people!

Oh, she’s awake now and looking over at me and licking her lips. I hope the barking dream isn’t about eating me.

The Fucker With the SS Tattoo on His Neck

So, I was on my way out to Cumberland Furnace yesterday with a Unitarian. I don’t want to make broad generalizations, but I will say that it has been my experience that, if you want to have really thought-provoking conversations, stick yourself in the car with a UU.

And, I was trying to figure out what would make someone get a tattoo of the SS insignia on his neck. Is he so sure of his bad-ass-ness that he assumes this will never lead him to trouble? I mean, you’d think that one lone guy with an SS tattoo on his neck would also be covered in fresh and faded bruises. But this guy seemed in relatively good health.

And then something very troubling occurred to me. Maybe kids today can have SS tattoos on their necks because other kids don’t know what it means.

See, I was thinking about when I moved to the town where I first met the Man from GM. Before that I lived in a town with a school system subsidized by the nuclear power industry. It wasn’t the greatest school system in the world–the Professor often tells me stories of this strange thing called an “orchestra” in which young folks can play instruments like the “viola” and “French horn” and though I try to say that we had that, too, and called it a band, I’m still not sure we’re talking about the same thing–and we didn’t have AP courses or anything, but by my sophomore year, I’d had half a year of French and a semester of Spanish and driver’s ed and lots of math and English classes.

When I moved to the Man from GM’s hometown, even though I utterly suck at math, I tested out of almost every math class they could offer me. I got an A+ in geometry, folks, and I can’t even correctly use a compass. When our English teacher was out sick, she left me in charge of the class. Our Physics class was so bad that we had an elaborate system of cheating. The Man from GM was taking Physics up at a junior college and he’d come back and show us his answers and we’d all struggle to get to them.

Which brings me to my first point. That school system was so bad that the Man from GM had to take classes up at the junior college throughout high school in order to get the education he and his parents thought they needed. Think about that.

There are no private schools in that town (of course). There’s nowhere else to send your kids. So, what if they aren’t smart enough to be taking junior college courses their sophomore year? What if they are, but you don’t have the money or extra car or the flexible work schedule to drive 40 minutes one way to take them to an additional school?

Our history class my junior year was American history. Most of it was spent watching Ken Burns’s civil war documentary. I don’t remember taking any history classes my senior year.

For me, academically, those two years were an utter waste. Everything I learned, I learned from reading on my own or from the Man from GM (which, indirectly, makes it his fault that I can’t balance my checkbook. Thanks for nothing, Man from GM.).

The Professor once told me that she thought that almost everyone she graduated with went to college. Out of the 47 of us, seven of us went. Of those seven, only one moved back.

Ha, see, here’s a truth about ruralness and poverty. Your best chance of escaping is a 4-year college education, so everything is set up to keep you from getting that. The public schools are shitty and you have no other options, so you’re, for the most part, completely unprepared for college life.

Because so much depends on you not leaving. The towns and farms and factories need smart people to run them, but having an education rapidly reduces the chances that you’ll come back to do so. Far better to keep you smart but under educated, so that they can keep you there.

I’m saying that I get that it’s not just about black sharecroppers and Mexican migrant workers. It really is about a whole system that depends on poor, desperate people.

And one of the most ingenious ways to keep people poor and desperate is to cut the children of those people, regardless of color, off from good, meaningful educations.

I don’t begrudge parents of inner-city schools wanting vouchers. I understand the Democrat’s position that we need to fix urban schools, not yank kids out of them. But god damn, schools need to work now and to ask another generation of poor people to wait around for schools to get better makes no sense.

It’s like someone comes to you with his arm sliced wide open and he says “I cut myself on that broken glass, please help me.” and we’re saying “Oh, well, I’ll see if I can find someone to sweep that up.”

My mom, as you may have discerned, is a teacher. She spent most of her career teaching science and French to rural children. Once the meth problem got so bad that she feared for her safety in the classroom, she went back to school and got certified to teach reading to elementary school children.

Right now, she and another woman run this remedial reading program. Almost half of her students aren’t actually “slow learners;” they just come from Spanish-speaking homes and are attempting to learn another language and learn to read all at the same time. The other half is just behind where they should be, for a variety of reasons.

When I was home, I asked her about “No Child Left Behind.” It took her a long time to formulate her answer and what she told me obviously disturbed her and me as well. Here is the gist of what she said: On the one hand, she doesn’t like it. She feels like it does encourage just teaching to the test and that she’s not sure that gives teachers the flexibility they need with kids. She also doesn’t like that it means that the kids are taking tests so often, because it really fucks with the school calendar. Plus it’s unfunded. Plus all the reasons you’ve already heard about why it sucks.

But (ha, you knew that was coming), in the second grade at her school, there are two teachers who refuse to teach to the test and two who’ve set up their whole curriculum around getting their kids ready for those tests. And here’s what gives my mom great pause about No Child Left Behind–the kids in the classrooms focused only on the test are doing better. They’re reading better and behaving better.

She says that she doesn’t think it’s because No Child Left Behind is some cure-all for the ills of public schools, but because it can force teachers to actually aim for something. And maybe this isn’t a problem at schools full of good teachers, but a lot of us kids out in the countryside aren’t going to schools full of good teachers.

Wow, this went a long way from the fucker with the SS tattoo on his neck. Anyway, I’m torn between feeling sorry for his stupid, ignorant ass and hoping that someone sticks a fork right in that tattoo. I think I feel both things.

I Stayed in Mississippi a Day too Long

There were two things I saw in Mississippi that made me go “What the fuck, America?” Those were not the incredibly awesome farm machinery driver who so gracefully maneuvered his rig off the road so that we could get by nor the young fucker with the SS tattoo on his neck, though both of those things were things I never considered were possible.

No, here’s what I saw:

1. An old man sitting on the porch of his one room tar paper shack on the Stovall farm land. He had his overalls on and a cane. His was not the only one room shack we saw, and in all fairness, we saw some two or three room shacks, as well, but he was the only person we saw who looked like he’d probably been there his whole life and worked side by side with McKinley Morganfield.

2. Half sheets of paper stacked on the counter of the Stovall plantation store with directions, in Spanish, for how the farm workers could make themselves understood and how they should behave at lunch time with the store workers, who did not speak or understand Spanish.

America, here’s the deal. If someone has a full-time job, if they are spending 40 hours or more a week doing anything, I don’t care what–tending rice paddies, sweeping Walmart store rooms, collecting garbage, cleaning houses–it is FUCKED UP if they only have one room to live in.

We are supposed to be a land of prosperity and opportunity. No one who lives in a tourist destination, especially–people coming for the blues and the casinos–should be living in a one-room tar paper shack.

And it is fucked up that we’ve just made room in those tiny shacks for desperate Mexican laborers. It’s not even “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” it’s “meet the new farm hands, same as the old farm hands.”

It really blew my mind when Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton got so mad at Mexico’s president for saying that Mexicans do work in the U.S. that even Blacks won’t do.

Instead of accusing him of racism and accepting his apologies, as if that was the be-all and end-all of the problem, you’d have thought that one of them would have said, “See, you fuckers, this is what we’ve been saying. It’s so obvious that the U.S. considers African Americans to still be the poor laboring class, that doesn’t have to be paid what he or she is worth, that even the president of Mexico can see it.”

I mean, unless there’s more to the story than we saw on the news, I really can’t understand why Jackson and Sharpton were so pissed at Fox. He didn’t seem to be saying that he thought it was right or natural or fine with him that so many black people have to take shit jobs and live in shit housing. He was just pointing out the truth obvious to anyone who opens her eyes.

We’re still a nation dependent on desperate poor people with few options and fewer legal protections–to clean our houses and work our farms and run our factories–and those desperate, unprotected people used to be primarily African American, but increasingly, those people are also Mexican.

Could President Fox have said it with a little more finesse? Sure. But it’s really fucked up that we’re letting ourselves be distracted from the real importance of what he’s saying–that we depend on certain groups of people we don’t have to pay shit or give a shit about in order for our country to function–by the clumsy way in which he said it.

Well, it’s fucked up, but it’s not surprising. It’s hard to even see, let alone admit, how our country is so dependent on people who will work for nothing or next to nothing, who lack basic legal protections (either because of how the law was/is written or because of how the law is carried out), and who carry the weight of the blame for all of society’s ills.

We like to think that we’re beyond that.