What I Learned from Television

I love television. Yes, I have a PhD and teach literature and all that, but I really like television, including the occasional dip into PBS, the favorite and sometimes the only channel most of my clan will admit to enjoying. Nope, not me. Ask me about Real Housewives, Toddlers and Tiaras, Dancing with the Stars, Intervention, or just about any HBO drama series. In my defense I can’t stand the warbly, overwrought balladeers and tween-hipsters of American Idol any more, and I only watch Dancing with the Stars so I can talk about it with my 83-year old mother (I swear that’s mostly true). And because I like television so much, the DVR has changed my life: I would sooner give up my refrigerator than do without it.

But what I really like to settle into my sofa’s ass-groove (in Homer Simpson’s immortal words) and watch for hours on end is sports. Maybe some people can do it, but I can’t watch sports that have been recorded. It’s not just that I’ll have to put myself in an information isolation booth to avoid finding out the result before I watch; it’s more subtle (and more embarrassing) than that: I’m afraid I’ll discover how little of an event is actually meaningful. Is a Wimbledon Final just as gripping without Nadal’s ball-bouncing, bangs-tucking, and wedgy-picking, for example? I think not. With the Red Zone, some fans have already discovered what an all-wheat and no-chaff NFL Sunday looks like, but I don’t really want to know.

But I digress. What I started to say was that when I indulge in a sports watching endurance event like the first weekend of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the DVR is of no use and I have to watch commercials. The same ones. Over and over again. And what I discovered this past weekend is that, partially as a function of the DVR and, alas, partially as a function of generalized old-fartitude, I don’t understand many of the commercials. I ponder them like foreign film, like the James Joyce novels I never finished reading, like jazz, and financial statements.

What hellscape are Mr. Peanut and his Lady (?) nut-friend in when he cheers on the spicy Spanish almond in a cape who’s bullfighting a cockroach? “There’s a lot of spice in that boy,” he intones with his monocle and walking stick and waistcoat. I don’t even want to remember if he’s wearing pants. Perhaps I need to adjust my medication, and I am aware of some vague stirring of desire, but I’m pretty sure it’s not for a can of nuts.

And who is supposed to buy that tricycle for geezers, the motorcycle with training wheels? Does it come with the Danica Patrick wannabes tumbling their raven locks from helmets (safety first!) and unzipping leather jackets. Maybe it’s the same people who must be obsessed with insurance of all kinds. I mean, in the name of all that’s holy, how much insurance-shopping do people do? Do we want to buy it from a horrible horse-faced man with a blue phone? Or from simultaneously ironic and peppy (a tricky double salchow of affect) Flo? I don’t want to know her name, but god help me, I do.

Then there are the pharmaceuticals ads, with their peculiar set of hermeneutical challenges. I’m especially baffled by the gout medicine commercial that shows the man lugging around the burden of his (bright green) excess uric acid, but then after he takes the magic pills, he still carries it around, except now in a hip leather messenger bag. What, the medicine doesn’t get rid of it; it just gives you something to carry it in? I don’t understand. Nor do I think my kitchen or laundry room flooding with water is sexy, Cialis people. Is this supposed to appeal to people old enough to need Cialis but unencumbered enough not to start thinking about plumbers and water-damage, and – wait – insurance? Oh, I get it.

Collision Courses

Last week I was hit by a motorcycle and by a new language. I keep waiting to see if one of those will leave a mark. The bike accident wasn’t as bad as you would think, but I wish I could clearly remember what happened, where the guy came from. I’m paranoid that it was my fault and that after the driver flew off his bike and went head first into a tree and hopped right back up, helmet intact, he developed some terrible spinal injury and died, and now everyone in town knows I’m the stupid American woman who killed a young man. A couple of days later I was standing on my hotel room balcony and noticed a guy across the street taking pictures of the hotel, of me? I turned my back, but I could still see him there in the reflection of the glass, snapping away. I became convinced I was going to be called in for questioning, about the accident, about what I’m doing here. So far that hasn’t happened, but the worry lingers, long after the soreness in my back from the wreck has faded. I’m here on a tourist visa, which the local police know because they record the details from everyone’s passports. Research and journalism are not allowed on a tourist visa in Vietnam (little do they know that I’m pretty incompetent at both those things). In my worst moments, however, I worry about this a lot.

Bikes in VietnamDetails of the accident are fuzzy. I think he hit my front wheel and I flew off the bike backwards and landed flat on my back without a scrape. I managed to keep my head up and not let it slam into the pavement, causing minor neck soreness a few days later. My sunglasses traveled 15 feet.  I anticipated huge blooming bruises on my back and hip, but for reasons I cannot explain none ever appeared. I did suffer from agonizing back spasms for several days, and endured the long, painful, sleepless first night when I was convinced I had some ghastly internal injury, like a ruptured spleen, wherever my spleen is. But, since there appeared to be no real harm done, I got back on the bike gingerly the next day, and I just gradually got less and less stiff and sore day by day. But I was scared and hurt and lonely. And that, too, got better day by day.
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I hate everyone and other sensitive cultural observations

Travel broadens the mind, but it also narrows it, especially when you are traveling alone as an invisible person, otherwise known as a middle-aged woman. In truth, it’s not really my mind that’s narrowing; it’s my patience and tolerance, and those two strands of my character are winnowing into a frayed spitty end of a short rope. Not my patience with and tolerance for the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, and even the frightening, necessarily. I’ve been studying and trying to use a new and difficult language, weathering regular power outages, rats and roaches, and have even survived being hit by a motorcycle while riding my bike. What I can’t stand is the other travelers. Not every single one of them of course; far be it for me to make such broad and unfair generalizations.

VietnamI hate the fake raggedyness of the backpacker crowd, wearing their collection of tattered bracelets and “I went tubing in Laos,” t-shirts, but who never leave the safety of their movable cliques. I hate those stupid Hammer-Harem hybrid pants the women wear, imagining they’re dressing like some lost tribe (I’ve never seen a local person anywhere in Vietnam or Cambodia wear those things), the gesture of conspicuous authenticity illuminating their western privilege like white phosphorus. I hate the shirtless men with their dumb-ass tattoos and stupid hats and sunglasses (yes — precisely the kind of folks who should be given cheap beer and motorcycles!). I hate how rude they are to the Vietnamese people in cafes and hotels. I hate also their callowness and ignorance. The rudest of a pack of insufferable English women in Sapa, sat reading a Judy Blume novel in the lobby of the hotel while her friend occupied every other square inch of the place with her gear and yelled loudly into her cell phone to some hapless Vietnamese driver. If you’re old enough to travel in Southeast Asia, you are too old for Judy Blume: go home. And I hate myself because I can’t help but envy their youth and beauty and unfettered fucking fun and their easy ignorance of the responsibility to think more deeply and complexly about the world and their places in it.

You know who else I hate? The older richer tourists in search of some Asian Resortiana, some unholy spawn of Orlando-Vegas-Waikiki-Cancun, Canlandowaicun, if you will, with “such cheap prices” and “nice people.” A very angry woman from California with whom I shared a cab from the train station to the airport in Hanoi, yelled at a Vietnamese man (who was actually trying to rip us off, but not by much) to fuck off. Then she launched into her critique of the whole country: “Vietnam is too scammy. We’re going back to Thailand!” Because the combination of low-wage service workers, tourism, and wealthy business interests appears to be going quite well there, doesn’t it?.Here in Hoi An, the men have their suits made for them and while the women get spa treatments, then they eat steaks and sea bass with knives and forks in fancy restaurants. Soon the central coast will be lousy with these people, although the actual residents of Hoi An town need hardly worry that they’ll spend more than a few hours here in its hot dusty streets filled with actual Vietnamese people. The road from Danang that runs south along the coast, past the beach now named for an American television show, past the beach where decades ago American helicopter pilots sometimes dipped the bellies of their machines low enough in the shallow waves to wash out the blood and mud and body parts, that road now blocks the view of the beach and is lined on both sides by enormous walled golf resorts where people can experience the exotic world of Vietnam without getting any of it on them. When these places are all open, beautiful Vietnamese women will wear ao dai and serve tea and cocktails, and small, wiry men will carry huge bags of clubs over what used to be sand dunes, descendents of the men who carried artillery piece by piece up and down mountain paths more than 35 years ago. On the day I came in from the airport, I saw an old woman in a conical hat stooped over with a short handled broom sweeping the sand and dust from a small patch of St. Augustine grass outside the wall.

And finally, I hate that the Vietnamese government – or someone – can’t or won’t do anything about this kind of crap. I shouldn’t blame them: They simply need the money. But these are the people who expelled the Chinese, the Portuguese (very briefly), French, Japanese, French again, and then the Americans. They fought off the Mongols, for crying out loud. I wouldn’t think bad-back Greg Norman and that little ill-tempered turd Colin Montgomerie could put up much of a fight.  But of course, they’ve probably never been here.

Swerve of the Cell

This is not the post I thought I would be writing. I was planning to tell you about how my college students talk and think about the Vietnam war in light of current American wars, or ask you to consider the locavore movement in food as the latest chapter in America’s long history of food fadism. But, that’s what I was going to write “when Truth broke in./With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm,” as Robert Frost says in “Birches.”

In this case, the storm wasn’t ice. It was blood. Or something. I had a stroke last week, an event that changes if not the lived conditions of my life, at least the story of it. I am now the person who has had a stroke at 52 years old (days away from 53). I am fit and healthy, do not have high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels. I ran 6 hilly miles the evening before the stroke. The only risk factors that I have are alcohol (duh) and occasional smoking. Okay, I guess the smoking had crept up to more than occasional, but was never an everyday, let alone all day, occurrence. I mention all this not to defend myself, but to point out that we too often put too much faith in the direct correlation of behaviors – moral choices, really – and medical consequences. If I were non-white, uneducated, and fat, the stroke would have been my fault, according to the dominant medicalized discourse. But because I am healthy, make good “food choices,” maintain a normal weight, and have not caused myself to have diabetes, or hypertension through my own stupidity or laziness, I am the victim of a random “swerve of the cell,” to borrow Lucretius’s “swerve of the atom” explanation of how free will enters the rational universe.

According to the interventional radiologist who slipped the wire from my thigh to my brain, 70% of the people who present with the symptoms I did die. I did not. Nor do I have any brain “devitalization” beyond two “dots” in the impulse-control area (yea—more inappropriate swearing!). Here are some of the things I did not conclude: god has a plan for me; everything happens for a reason; I should start eating egg whites and gross fake butter; I will abandon my contrarian plan never to do yoga. And what I did conclude: damn, that was some luck, first bad and then good.

Of Caissons and Casseroles, Circa 1963

JohnIf you are among my family and you want to cause a disturbance, or possibly create a diversion to cover your escape, the way to do it is to lean in close to me or one of my sisters and say, “President Kennedy is dead.” Without fail, we’ll laugh out loud, make the others laugh, and then be unable to stop, only encouraged by the disapproving looks and frantic hushing. My parents will look at each other and sigh, “Kennedy’s dead again.” This tends to happen a lot in church.

If I knew anything about psychology I would know the word for this phenomenon where stimulus and response, cause and effect, cart and horse trade places. Whatever it’s called, we would be a textbook case. What happened was that we had taught ourselves a biofeedback mechanism in which we would solemnly pronounce the phrase “President Kennedy is dead” to stifle the fits of giggles that came over us when we all shared a room and were supposed to be asleep, and my father would warn from bottom of the stairs that he didn’t want to come up there one more time. It was the saddest thing we knew-the only genuinely sad thing we knew-and it worked well, at first. Before too long, however, it began to have the opposite effect, and we found we had to go back to the more primitive technique of stuffing our covers in our mouths. But before we thought it was funny, we knew it was very, very sad.

On the day of Kennedy’s funeral, we went to mass and came home and watched the procession on television. I recall trying to measure and plumb my parents’ dutiful participation in the public drama of grief. I knew they “didn’t like” Kennedy and had not voted for him. I worried that someone on TV would say the name of Franklin Roosevelt because that was associated in my mind with the words “President” and “Democrat,” and my grandfather, in whose house I had been warned never to utter those words, would go apeshit. But on the other hand, my parents were Catholic and Irish, as was poor, dead President Kennedy. And if you are Catholic and Irish and someone has died, there are two things you must do before the consolation of casseroles, cold ham, and cocktails: Go to mass and sit around. This can apparently entertain adults for hours and even days, but for us, after we had changed out of our church clothes and eaten our ham sandwiches and sat around fidgety for a while, there wasn’t much else to do.

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