Bless the eyes and hands of experience

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“If thought is really to find a basis in lived experience, it has to be free. The way to ensure this is to think other in the register of the same. As you construct yourself, imagine another yourself that will one day construct you in its turn. Such is my conception of spontaneity: the highest possible level of self-consciousness that is still inseparable from the self and from the world.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

I cannot look at a lifetime of previous experience and find anything but something to be grateful for. How I could find fault with, judge or castigate someone for the things that made him who he is now, brought him to this point, where he feels, breathes, walks, runs, lives, sleeps, fucks, eats, moves in this way that is so precisely tuned to the ‘he’ that I know now?

What we should…

“You should never fall in love. Love will bring you unhappiness. If you must love, let it be when you are older, after you are thirty.” –The Setting Sun, Osamu Dazai

“The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.” –Middlemarch, George Eliot

Maybe the door has been opened, maybe my middle age has made my brain into mush. But we must use the time we have to absorb what is in books, to touch each other, to eat or revile coriander, to hear our voices reach each other and rise above the hubbub and cut through the chaotic din of our other lives to be able to say, do and be only the most uninhibited of things, to walk through the forest or along the river, to nurture and coax the best of each other, to lighten the dark path we each tread sometimes, to dare to be silly or mundane and find beauty in it, to watch a lone cat sit patiently and alert in the middle of an overgrown field before pouncing on its prey, to sing – however dumb we sound – songs that come into our heads, to fall in love (after 30 or even 40), to give and give and give until exhausted, sore and dizzy, to transform and be transformed. We can blink our eyes, and find suddenly that it is over.

Suffering is sweeter still

“but on days when I fear disappointment, I prefer to look on the dark side of things, it pulls me together and keeps me one step ahead of suffering” –So Much for that Winter, Dorthe Nors

And how sad that would be if we didn’t render our own off-key renditions of “Lover Man” while lying entangled in bed or let ourselves cry in the joy of simple closeness, in the tenderness and care of bringing a cup of coffee in the morning, or in the loss of some small thing we barely noticed when we had it, or in the beauty of how glossy and liquid fountain pen ink can look on a page (I noticed this most of all in a recent episode of American Gods – not at all surprised by the tantalizing visuals there). And how empty life could be if we (or I) only grabbed cheap ballpoint pens, cast books aside to watch Law & Order reruns, or as I was recently cautioned against doing – discarded the best person I ever knew just because I don’t know how to be with someone who is undamaged.

But where, indeed, does experience end and damage begin?

“It feels like nothing matters in our private universe.”

 

Your pain is nothing to me: Teeth

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“The teeth and back reject…” -Marge Piercy

For much of my life I’ve struggled with the teeth – and these last days have been hobbling along like an 85-year-old lady with a back ‘disturbance’, so the quotation feels apt. This is what happens when you push too hard.

Nerding out, as I do, as soon as I read a review of the book Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America,  I knew I had to read it immediately. God knows why. Weird things fascinate me, and maybe it’s not true to say that I “nerd out” sometimes. I am, let’s face it, a full-time nerd.

“The dividing line between the classes might be starkest between those who spend thousands of dollars on a gleaming smile and those who suffer and even die from preventable tooth decay.”

I get fired up about reading the most random of things – this time about teeth and the history of dental care and dentistry: everything from the obsession with the cosmetic aspects of teeth (which is treated at length in the book, but about which I choose not to focus here) to the pain, suffering and real, life-threatening medical emergencies that can occur when teeth are not cared for (and a system that isn’t designed to care for the majority of people and their teeth).

In the way that they disfigure the face, bad teeth depersonalize the sufferer. They confer the stigma of economic and even moral failure. People are held personally accountable for the state of their teeth in ways that they are not held accountable for many other health conditions.

The teeth are made from stern stuff. They can withstand floods, fires, even centuries in the grave. But the teeth are no match for the slow-motion catastrophe that is a life of poverty: its burdens, distractions, diseases, privations, low expectations, transience, the addictive antidotes that offer temporary relief at usurious rates.

What does it say that this book actually made me cry? That a child’s dental health (or any person’s really) is able to reach such a state of total breakdown that it is his final frontier. Once teeth are beyond all help, the body itself slips toward mortality – that’s too much for my emotional parts to process. The story of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, a Maryland boy who died of a systemic infection caused by one decaying tooth was heartbreaking and not at all unique.

Not to add that America, with its fragmented health or dental care systems, which are – as the book explores – completely separate, the idea of preventive care, while trotted out in marketing and ad efforts for toothpaste, isn’t taken very seriously. (Parents need to teach their children: “Your teeth are pearls. You should keep them,” she said.) And analyses of the total cost involved (not even looking at the tragic loss of life) balance an 80 USD tooth extraction against the estimated 250,000 USD that Driver’s emergent medical condition, surgical procedures and hospitalizations ended up costing. Driver might have been saved had the labyrinthine system, leading his mother around in circles but going nowhere but an unnecessary and excruciating death, had more transparency or advocates in it.

The rate of dental suffering is a grim kind of economic indicator.

It’s complex. How did the human body and its (medical) treatment become completely disconnected from the treatment of the mouth and teeth, moving further away from any notion of “holistic treatment”? The book highlights, for example, the squeamishness that even seasoned combat and trauma physicians feel when it comes to extracting a rotten tooth from a patient who comes to the ER in the absence of some other form of treatment or pain relief. The theory behind this is that perhaps working with teeth is just too personal.

None of it is new. The teeth tell a story, both an evolutionary and individual history. And can erupt in the pressure of the kind of pain and suffering that can scarcely be put into words.

The teeth flame out when they die. That is a very old kind of pain. The human fossil record bears mute testimony.

“At some moments, he said the pain was so deep it became like a partner. “Really the pain almost feels good after a while*. The medulla takes over and you waltz through it.At other times, he said he was its slave. “I’m in a lot of pain but I can’t do anything about it,” he said. “I don’t beg, borrow, or steal. Shoot me in the head, please. It would be a lot easier if you put me out of my misery.”

*As I always say, there is a poem or song for everything. PK Page writes in her poem “Suffering”:

“But
suffering is sweeter yet.
That dark embrace – that birthmark,
birthright, even.
Yours forever
ready to be conjured up –
tongue in the sore tooth, fingertip
pressed to the bandaged cut
and mind returning to it over and over.

Best friend, bestower of feeling
Status-giver.
Something to suck at like a stone.
One’s own. One’s owner.
…One’s almost lover.”

“”SHOW ME YOUR TEETH,” THE GREAT NATURALIST GEORGES CUVIER, is credited with saying, “and I will tell you who you are.” That a tooth could tell a life story, he was certain.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Fleabag

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That quiet lull between the summer TV season and the standard, full-throttle autumn season gave me an opportunity to watch some stuff I might not have, such as the ITV production Victoria (don’t bother – it’s kind of crap except for Rufus Sewell, who is always good even when he is given crap material to work with; still, the series was renewed for a second season) and the dark comedy self-humiliation fest that is Fleabag. Let’s not get into the fact that I also dipped my toe (oh, who am I kidding? I jumped in the deep end) into the six seasons of Sex & the City, which I had so carefully avoided during its first incarnation. Despite there being no shortage of original summer programming that began and ended in almost staggered shifts, I still found myself, at times, with an empty queue (have watched most of what interests me so far on HBO Nordic and Amazon; can only access Swedish Netflix now so there are a lot of lovely films I cannot see in my old American queue. Kind of frustrating because I was not even trying to cheat the system: I pay for both an American and a Swedish subscription).

Maybe it’s this “empty queue” idea that also drives the nameless anti-heroine of Fleabag. She’s very funny, very awkward and a total mess – and she knows it. She breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the viewer quite often, and it works. I keep seeing lazy comparisons to Bridget Jones and Girls’s Hannah Horvath – but as I write, these are just that – lazy. Our nameless mess of a woman is so much more than both and completely confident in her lack of self-confidence. (Must be – even The Economist got in on the action of writing about Fleabag.)

It’s funny, it’s ironic, it’s sarcastic, it’s pretty realistic, and in that way, it’s also heartbreaking. It somehow manages to be both the wound and the salt you pour into it yourself because you think you deserve to suffer, or like Canadian poet PK Page posits, because you believe that “suffering confers identity”. For the show’s lead, her “empty queue” is not a tv-watching list: it’s the emptiness of her life without her best friend, who has accidentally committed suicide; it’s the more distant but still fresh loss of her mother to cancer and the subsequent, if metaphorical, loss of her father to an uptight and horrible stepmother; it’s the tense but close relationship she shares with her sister. It’s mindlessly filling the emptiness with a queue of men and a, shall we say active, graphic and even rugged sex life? Sex queue as coping mechanism, and only through the six episodes do we see exactly how winding, dark and byzantine are the problems she is trying to fuck into oblivion or at least avoid.

Flea photo (c) 2014 Matt Brown.

Busyness: One’s almost lover

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“Are you too busy? You should be, and you should let people know in a proud but exasperated tone.” A recent Slate article about people claiming to be busy and thus wasting time and driving themselves mad with the assertion (because they probably really are nowhere near as “busy” as they claim) hit the nail on the head. People love to masquerade as the world’s busiest, most put-upon and wear this distinction like a badge of honor. The article asks a question I ask myself all the time: “If the time squeeze is so miserable, why do people brag about it?”

There is no real mystery behind it, though. If you know people – even if you generalize about them, you know that people need, want, crave and will put themselves through hell to get just a shred of recognition – some kind of recognition. People want to brag about misery and be acknowledged for suffering through it, regardless of whether it is self-created. The Slate article echoes these fears, citing a book called The Busy Trap by Tim Kreider, “Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time. It’s the equivalent of being told that you’re redundant or obsolete.” People love to suffer and brag about it.

An article in the Washington Post excerpted another article on the subject (both articles I cite refer to a book on the subject written by Brigid Schulte), states, “And life, sociologists say, became an exhausting everydayathon. People now tell pollsters that they’re too busy to register to vote, too busy to date, to make friends outside the office, to take a vacation, to sleep, to have sex. As for multitasking, one 2012 survey found that 38 million Americans shop on their smartphones while sitting on the toilet. And another found that the compulsion to multitask was making us as stupid as if we were stoned.”

Considering the business of being busy, the PK Page poem “Suffering” immediately rushed to mind.

Suffering
Man is made in such a way that he is never so much attached to anything as he is to his suffering.” –Gurdjieff

Suffering
confers identity. It makes you proud.
The one bird in the family bush. Which other, ever
suffered so? Whose nights, whose days,
a thicket of blades to pass through?
Deeps of tears. Not ever to give it up
This friend whose sword
turns in your heart,
this o-so-constant clever cove-care-giver
never neglectful, saying yes and yes
to plumed funerary horses, to grey drizzle
falling against the panes of the eyes.

Oh, what without it? If you turned your back?
Unthinkable, so to reject it, choose instead
meadows flower-starred
or taste, for instance – just for an instant – bread.
The sweet-smelling fields of the earth
dancing
goldenly dancing
in your mouth.

But
suffering is sweeter yet.
That dark embrace – that birthmark,
birthright, even.
Yours forever
ready to be conjured up –
tongue in the sore tooth, fingertip
pressed to the bandaged cut
and mind returning to it over and over.

Best friend, bestower of feeling
Status-giver.
Something to suck at like a stone.
One’s own. One’s owner.
…One’s almost lover.