the ugly tourist, by jamaica kincaid

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

(Got this from the 10th edition of my Norton Reader. Pretty deadly stuff, wouldn’t you say? The passage was followed by a battery of questions related to the essay’s style, word choice, grammatical construction, and how exactly those combine to create the essay’s effect (this being a reader that aims to teach writing). The short answer to that would probably go something like “LOTS OF PARENTHETICALS” + “judicious usage of laser-pointer second person POV” + “drawling, biting undertone smuggled in under the aegis of some nicey-nice phraseology” = “blood-drawing contempt”. On reconsideration it’s obvious that Kincaid’s larger target is the privilege/economic stratification  that underwrites and enables the functioning of all tourism industries. But her takedown is so resentful and belligerently pitched that it’s also somewhat troubling, and not in the way she intends. For example, it leaves no room for the existence of a more benign tourism – the obvious response being that not all tourism takes place in poor countries. For another – for another?

If a person wanted to escape the banality of their life and go somewhere else, does that make them “ugly”? Kincaid says yes. But I think an interesting thing to notice here is her usage of the word “ugly”. Notice that she doesn’t use another word in its place – “bad”. So it seems to me that the essay is a summary judgment of the system rather than a judgment of the tourist’s character, since everyone everywhere suffers the same everyday banality. After all, it’s not ugly that you want to escape your life and go on vacation – it’s ugly that you have the wherewithall – the economic means – to do so.)

The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day. From day to day, you are a nice person. From day to day, all the people who are supposed to love you on the whole do. From day to day, as you walk down a busy street in the large and modern and prosperous city in which you work and live, dismayed, puzzled (a cliché, but only a cliché can explain you) at how alone you feel in this crowd, how awful it is to go unnoticed, how awful it is to go unloved, even as you are surrounded by more people than you could possibly get to know in a lifetime that lasted for millennia, and then out of the corner of your eye you see someone looking at you and absolute pleasure is written all over that person’s face, and then you realize that you are not as revolting a presence as you think you are (for that look just told you so). « Read the rest of this entry »


scattered thoughts on thanksgiving weekend

November 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Repeated viewings of Kung Fu Panda and its assorted spinoffs and sequels.

Bobby singing to my cat. Then chasing after her with a giant red totebag. Then putting her in the totebag. Then pretending the totebag is a swing or a rollercoaster.

Cooked Thanksgiving dinner all through the day on Thursday. The eight pound hunk of prime rib came out livid red when we got a knife in it. As we cut it up the deep grooves of the wooden chopping board slowly filled with blood.

Furiously resentful of having to go to the L.A. Auto Show, even though I suggested it in the first place. I thought I could get into the hybrid display, learn a bit about smart cars and sit in one and pretend I lived in a teacup and hung my clothes on a rack made from a paperclip, but the whole thing was kind of gross. Fleshly proof of our status- and brand-obsessed society. And lightly flavored with sexism, if you’re into that kind of thing! They had skinny women in tight, bare-sleeved dresses and stiletto heels slink around their cars, voluptuously repeating marketing copy to assembling on-lookers. Multiple instances of hip swayage occurred. A dark-haired lady charged by me, pushing a baby in a stroller (I was reading a book on the floor, feeling rebellious and nonconformist and probably sourly muttering to myself about the paucity of public transportation options in the larger Los Angeles region). As she approached the display, she repeated the car name to her baby. “Look baby, it’s an Audi! An Audi!” OH FOR CHRIST’S SAKE. IT’S A HUNK OF EMBOSSED METAL. PS. YOU LIVE AN EMPTY LIFE.

Belascos on Sunday night: Drank too much. Instant awkwardness when friend P. introduced me to some dudely dudes, then immediately followed up with the statements “she’s really smart” and “she’s applying to law school”. “Oh…cool.” was the typical response, followed by a bout of oogling. I was thinking about this in relation to my friend C., who is the kind of vociferous, opinionated, and supremo-confident striver that, by opening her mouth, instantly distinguishes herself from others in a classroom. There’s the feeling there, shared by her, and I, that those qualities that enable her in particular and women in general to succeed professionally, are also ones that work against her (and women) in the romantic sphere. True? False? If I didn’t have B., for example, would dudes hear “law school” and flee in droves? Or am I just making excuses for my own ineptitude? It’s not like my life as it relates to other young people would be socially frictionless even if I didn’t go to X college. But I don’t think it helps. Sometimes I think that people think that I think I’m better than them, that I’m not conversing because I’m snobby, when really I’m having to wrestle and floor-pin the insecurities and fears that, to my eye, they overcame long ago.

(I remember B.’s friend, JK, a Singaporean transplant. When we visited over the summer he told us he was on OK Cupid. “Oh, definitely,” he said, when asked about his preferred girl, “She’s gotta be UCLA or Berkeley caliber.”)

But man, clubbing. I had one of those nights where keeping upright is a trial. Why do I do it? Sometimes it’s plain sordid. B. said he saw two girls rubbing each other between their legs in a circle of men. It’s fun to dance but I can’t separate my enjoyment of it from the uneasy feeling that the whole get-up is predatory and crass and an affront to feminism. And if you must ask, I keep repeating that because many things are.

letters with a penpal

November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

K, in an email:

One of my favorite things to tell people is, “You don’t have to live up to your potential.” I think that causes a lot of stress, you know, people thinking that they need to live up to some kind of imaginary standard that their parents or society or whatever set for them. Really, does living up to one’s potential make one happy? What if one is perfectly content making $15 an hour and playing video games all the time? What if one is happy being a stay-at-home housewife? What if one is happy writing fanfiction and never making a penny from their writing? Why should that person strive for more?

I responded:

As for your question about potential — and it’s a legitimate one that I feel strongly about! — I don’t have any clear responses. I can’t answer with a resounding cry in the affirmative because it already makes me feel deeply uneasy that so much of the youthful population in this country is so politically disengaged and uncaring about anything but their material welfare. So for example, with the housewife, I would feel the kneejerk desire to talk to her about feminism (tempered with the understanding that if she wants to, she wants to — it’s her life). For me, the answer to “Why should a person strive for more?” is very clearly one of, “How can I/any conscionable person not, when there are so many appalling problems in this world?” But at the same time, I understand that that is an unreasonable standard to set for most people, because most people only want to pursue their lives and BBQ on days off and drink with their friends and have a partner/family to cherish and love.

As for your hypotheticals, I think the question(s) is: Does the person want to live up to their potential because their inner motivations drive them to do so? If not, and they’re driven purely by their hectoring parents, would they feel emotionally fulfilled by gaming/housewiving/fanfic-writing/a combo thereof for the remainder of their lives — even if no one were around to make them feel bad about it? But no one can ever fully separate themselves from society. Even if no one was standing over you shaking their fists and telling you to go to law school, we would still read, watch television, have friends with careers, and be subjected to other normalizing forces. Given all that, is there some point at which “being made to feel bad” is indistinguishable from “feeling bad because I myself feel that I could/should do more”? In other words, how do you separate environmentally-influenced emotions from your own, innate feelings? Since the environment will always be there, can you?

In other other words, is it even possible to free yourself from the stress of expectations, whether externally or internally imposed?

you’re not fit to talk to

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

1. A friend recently told me about a high school classmate of ours. When asked why he hadn’t bother to keep in contact with any of his former schoolmates, he claimed, in so many words, that they were too boring to be worth his time.

Now, this isn’t as enraging as that other time another high school classmate of mine posted a reprehensible Republican screed on her blog about how people who performed poorly in school had only themselves to blame (because obviously, her own success was not in any way influenced by the fact that she had two nurturing parents, a roof over her head, and money to spend on necessities like food and boxes of test prep manuals), but it still riles me, because in his dismissal he waves away a lot of worthy people, in preference for people who are “more cultured”, “more witty”, or “more fun”.

On one hand, who can blame him? I understand this point of view. People have limited amounts of time; best to spend what’s left of it smoking exotic herbs and fashioning post-modern sculptures out of wire hangers and laundry lint on the rooftop of your friend’s friend’s friend’s midtown chateau (read: subletted ratbox). I often feel like I don’t share similar interests with many of my high school friends. I am sure I have dismissed acquaintances in college because they seemed like shallow or boring people. I am even more sure that I have avoided people because they seemed uncool. « Read the rest of this entry »

charter schools, and some unpleasant reminiscences

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, at a restaurant, I ran into a girl who bullied me in middle school. That mean, narrow-eyed face. Her voice like talons in my larynx. We did this so hard.

If I’ve ever hated anyone in my life, it just might be her. I hope she sucks boba down the wrong tube one day and dies, the talentless bitch.


The Myth of Charter Schools, by Diane Ravitch, for the New York Review of Books.

S. works in a low-income school district. Today she told me about “kids who are being threatened to be sent to foster care because their aunt or uncle doesn’t want to take care of them anymore, children who are physically and emotionally abused, children who don’t have money for basic school supplies, children whose parents can’t help them or chose not to help them with their school work, parents who don’t tell their children that it’s important to go to school and [discipline them] when they get in trouble for misbehavior, parents don’t do anything to support the school, parents who work all day and night and don’t have time to take care of their children and instead have 10 year olds babysitting 2 year olds and doing all the house work, children who don’t have food because their parents don’t provide them with meals, parents who are going through a divorce yet neither wants to take their child so the child gets sent off to live with another relative and bounces between homes, parents who don’t provide livable conditions for their children, i.e., allowing their dogs to poop and pee all over the house creating unsanitary conditions and only cleaning up when the social worker is due for a visit.” These are kids she works with everyday.

I was thinking about the charter school debate. As I was telling S., it’s funny — or rather, unsurprising — how the media can really dictate your opinion about certain issues. I’d heard about Waiting for Superman and Michelle Rhee before, and read Steve Brill’s hair-raising article about NYC’s public school system*, as well as a small portion of his newly released book, Class Warfare. So prior to reading the NYbooks review I was under the impression that public education deserved a big F- on its scorecard and charter schools were the best hope for underprivileged children. But really the issue is much more nuanced than that. « Read the rest of this entry »

cloud atlas, by david mitchell

November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Another reread from when I was eighteen years old. This book isn’t as forthrightly enjoyable as Number9dream, which was this headlong surge into urban surrealism and ultraviolence and rivening familial loss and the travails of being a lovelorn story-tinkerer in an immense and alienating metropolis. Cloud Atlas is a very self-consciously thinky project that constantly calls attention to its own fictiveness. Same’s true of Number9dream, except in CA the tale-spinner’s an even more pronounced presence, isn’t he? CA’s also got what an academic might call a transculturalist agenda badge stuck dead-center on its chest. This novel is a card-carrying pluralist. It is organizing food drives and handing out flyers outside of the central subway station. Which, fine, that’s wonderful — so glad to see D. Mitch pushing progressive values in his fiction. I really admire his panache and determination in constructing a novel about the rise and demise of all of human civilization, for cripe’s sake, and one that pivots on a critique of predacity and xenophobia. As an politically aware young person I basically erupted into thunderous applause on reading the last two pages. « Read the rest of this entry »

hitch-22, by christopher hitchens

October 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

This man’s life. I would like to make it into a novel. No, a biopic. No, a hysterical bullet-strewn manga, serialized over an extended period of time to ramp up anticipation for the next breathless installment. What will the Hitch be doing next? Exposing corrupt electioneering practices in India? Vivisecting Kim-Jong-il during an interview on worldwide TV? Caning Noam Chomsky over his knee? « Read the rest of this entry »

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