Monday, December 1, 2008

Say it Harder, so They can Feel it

I just so happen to have read all four of these pieces before.  The Sedaris piece (like all of his work) I've read over and over again, and the other three essays were assigned in the class that I am preceptoring with Dr. Nels.   I think these four are excellent examples of personal essays/memoirs.  Each one deals with pain on some level, but each uses a distinctly different tone to do so, and to connect with their intended audience.  Also - I've come to realize how very important a strong beginning is to a successful memoir.

Sedaris' essay deals with his mother's death - a tragedy which seems almost incomprehensible to me.  I think it might be easy to lose my attention with overt melancholy, but instead of being morose Sedaris skillfully uses humor to disarm some of the horror of the story.  His opening is particularly appealing to me, dealing with both latent homosexuality and recreational drug use. I think another clever thing Sedaris does to draw a reader in and keep the story interesting, is to use his sister's marriage (a typically happy and life-affirming affair) as a counterpoint to his mother's looming lung cancer.

Beth Richards' essay was not necessarily about death, but the slow failure of her grandmother's mind toward the end of her life.  Richards' strength, I think, lies in her amazing gift for description.  Her first paragraph is some of the best description I've ever read.  The character of her great-grandmother becomes so clear in so few sentences.  Richards chooses her words so carefully - I could tell that even if I didn't know her habit of revising a piece over and over again.  I am immediately drawn into her story, because I want to keep listening to her voice.

You certainly can't argue with Strayed's first line.  "The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week."  Wow.  Obviously an attention getter.  Also - it sets the tone for a very raunchy story.  It can almost act as its own warning.  Do not read on if you don't want to encounter something kind of nasty.  I don't know if I could ever be this nakedly honest in a memoir of my own - especially about something sexual.  I might be willing to kiss and tell - but not betray.  Her tone is effective, but not something I could necessarily use myself.

Beard's story I found to be an engaging story, but definitely the least effective of the four, for me.  Specifically, her first paragraph is kind of sappy, and it doesn't really set the stage properly for the rest of the story.  In fact - the whole first couple of pages seems slow to me.

For all of this memoir reading, I still have little to no idea of what I want to write about for the final essay.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Push It

This was absolutely the most depressing book I've ever read.

I read this before the class even started, and being so removed from this type of situation (extreme poverty/welfare/incest) I reacted unusually to it.  With most fiction in general, I am able to get into the character's head and really relate - even when the book is fantastical or strange.  However, with Push, I literally had to "push" myself to even read on to the next page.  I hate to admit that I was actually revolted a little by Precious, not least because her name was f*&%ing Precious.  She was so undereducated.  It was not her fault, certainly, but she comes across as very unappealing to me.

"Precious'"  writing style bothered me particularly.  In the case of many Irvine Welsh stories, he writes dialog (and sometimes narrates) in a Scottish brogue.  This can make it tough to read, but enhances the reality of the stories and characters introduced.  This brand of Ebonic-type language that Sapphire uses does help to lend legitimacy to the story, but does not endear me to her characters.  I don't like this about myself.  It makes me uncomfortable that I would allow myself to stay so disconnected to this story while reading it.  Especially once I learned about her HIV positive status - I wanted nothing to do with her emotionally.  This is not typical of my attitude about AIDS (in fact - I will be going to see the UHA performance of Angels in America this weekend!) but it was like the last Jenga brick that just finalizes everything.  Precious means nothing to me, excepting as a potential example of why I care about education and racial/gender equality.

Even more disturbing than my blatant dislike of most (if not all) of the characters (even Rain!) is the fact that the only time I "really" tuned in to the story was during the sex scenes between Precious and her father.  This is not because I have any kind of experience with incest (thank goodness), but because the scenes were described so vividly.  I tend to be a bit of a sexual person, and I will most often key in to the sexual aspects of a work of fiction.  It is just upsetting to me that the "sexy" aspects of this novel were entirely unsexy.  Even then - she describes orgasms (and sexual pleasure in general) in such a cool way, but I cannot even enjoy these images, because I am inexorably brought back to the thought that this is happening with her biological father, and that it's also rape.  That's far too much kink for me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

songs to slit a wrist to

I was so pleased that our assignment this week involved music.  Music is a medium through which artists have been expressing pain for centuries.  Films are cool to dissect, but there could never be as many films as there are songs.  Plus - a song is a mini-art form.  Large, orchestral compositions aside, a pop song contains a simple message - usually conveyed in under five minutes.

Starting with Nirvana was awesome.  Kurt Cobain has been echoing my loneliness and inadequacy since I was in the seventh grade.  "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a freaking classic.  The driving guitar and Kurt's strained voice express a deep apathy and sadness - both of which are emotions to which I have no problem relating.  All three of the Nirvana songs are made even more poignant by Kurt's eventual suicide.  I realize as I write this that I am referring to him by his first name - and I think this is because his music has made me intimately familiar with him.  Well - that's not quite right.  I never knew the man, but because he describes pain in a way that is familiar to me, it makes me feel inherently comfortable.  There have been many times in my life when I depressed and miserable - and at those times I like to put in Nirvana's Unplugged, and just wallow for a while in our shared misery.  It helps.  I don't know why, but it helps.

As I made my way through the rest of the songs, I realized that my connection with these songs depends on two things.  One, I have to understand the type of pain felt, at least to some degree.  Two, I have to like the genre of music that the song represents.  The country song?  Eh.  Tears on my guitar is a pretty goofy line, if you ask me, but I am not a good judge, being pretty vehemently anti-twang.  The Travis song, the Clarkson song (gag me gag me gag me) and those two explicit "Fuck it" songs were uninteresting to me, either because I couldn't relate (as I couldn't to Travis's brand of melancholy) or I dislike the sound of the song.

One theme that I recognized that ran through a lot of these songs regardless of genre was that the vocals in many of them alternate from soft and sweet to yelling or strained.  All the Nirvana songs are like that, "You Oughta Know" was, etc.  I obviously have a good grasp on why I don't like some of the songs, but I think the only reason behind me really FEELING the song lies in the basic message.  For instance - I love the new Beyonce track - "All the Single Ladies" or some nonsense like that.  It's a hot beat, and it's produced well.  However - I don't really FEEL what Beyonce is saying, because I don't believe in her basic message.  With the Bleeding Love song - I could cry every time I hear it, because I believe it, and I know it, and I FEEL it.

I think this collection of songs makes it obvious that people write music about many different kinds of pain.  I am way more into subtlety usually in art, but I like my pain songs to be sung by the likes of Alanis and Kurt.  Anger, rage, deep and impenetrable sadness - these are things that deserve lines like "every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back I hope you feel it" and "I'm so ugly - that's ok, cause so are you."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Are You Kidding Me With That Hand/Saw Thing

How horrifying.  

Not the gore, although I had my issues with that as well.  I'm talking about the acting.  Why is it a prerequisite for any Hollywood horror film that the actors are lifeless and unconvincing?  My personal favorite was the blonde chick who gets offed first - who happens to be the cousin of a friend of mine.  She was such a perfect, lovely, and useless character.  A throwaway.  In fact - most of the people in this film (with the weak exception of Jigsaw himself) were completely useless, excepting as targets for the violence.  I have a hard time justifying hours of my life to entertainment that is just trash.  Maybe I could have gotten a bit more into the film by seeing the other four, but that was just too daunting a task.  Leaving the theater, I thought, "What was the point of this film?  What do people get out of it?

Gabrielle Murray's article offered a few reasons why people may be attracted to this kind of torture porn - one of which is that this kind of imagery makes us "feel things."  Aside from bored and antsy, I suppose that the movie did make me feel something.  Kinda sick.  The second-to-last ultraviolent scene in the film occurred when two victims were forced to place their hands into a mysteriously-overly-complicated sawing device.  They were to be bled almost to death.  Now - there is no way to know exactly what that kind of thing might look or sound like - but that didn't stop the director from eternally drawing out the scene.  The sound of bones being sliced through was unpleasant, but not scary.  With no genuine tension in the film, I just didn't see the point.

I thought the plot was weak and predictable.  Jigsaw picks "imperfect" people for his schemes.  This is classic horror movie stuff - if you sin, you die.  Sexual deviance, swearing, being a minority - these are all crimes for which one must be punished!  I think the film would have been much scarier if his choices of victims were random.  As it was, I didn't even have nightmares.  How disappointing.  

So - there was a definite effect on my psyche after seeing this film.  Murray discusses a human desire to get in touch with our mortality.  I do that enough on a regular basis (I have been known to be an outrageous hypochondriac), so I didn't really appreciate coming face to face with such explicitly graphic violence.  It doesn't matter that this is a fictive story.  My reaction is strong and visceral.  The dude who gets cut in half on the rack-like device?  Please.  I will be thinking about a pointed blade slicing through my skin, and then my liver until further notice.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Quest for Narrative

This book, while a bit lofty and abstract for my taste (especially coming from a medical doctor!) made a lot of sense to me.  I think that if I had read it ten years ago, it might have done little for me.  To explain, perhaps I will tell a small narrative of my own.

I lived with my friend M (name withheld) for just under a year, and in that time I learned more about her body than I ever wanted to know.  No, it was not a sexual relationship - we were just friends.  However - when she was between the ages of 10 and 14, she underwent many surgeries and procedures - all dealing with her digestive system.  She nearly died.  One surgeon cut a wrong nerve, and ended up severing all feeling to her bladder, and most of the feeling in her sexual organs.  I could go on for pages with the horror of what she's been through - mostly because she had a great need to share her narrative. 

Her narrative was rather interesting, though, because she often "told" it with her visual art.  I went to a show she did - and I was really blown away.  She had an entire wall installation of illeostemy bags, and some amazing hand-stitched fashion-forward covers for them.  She had an installation of toilet seats, cast of ceramic, with random people's toilet thoughts written right on them.  Again - I could go on - but let's just say that I was impressed.

This book showed me that M's story is a Quest Narrative.  She knows that she will never be back to "perfect health" - she has had permanent damage done to her body.  She is truly amazed by her experiences, and almost grateful for them.  As much as it can get frustrating when a friend obsesses on a topic (or themselves in general) I could not help but be impressed by this positive attitude.

I realize that my narrative here is not my self-story.  I have a self-story about illness, I suppose, but it's just not as good as M's.  I tend to dislike talking about my pain - it makes me feel weak and needy.  Especially when serious things are happening with my body - it is usually something I try to deal with on my own - or I surround myself with people and drugs that can help me forget my predicament.

This book brought up some excellent points about ill people, however, I wish it was a bit easier to read sometimes.  Brian, in his blog, kind of writes about what I mean.  He uses some weird, highfalutin language to describe what seem to be basic concepts - he almost masks them with obscure language.

Monday, October 20, 2008

I ain't afraid of no ghosts.

Torture porn usually doesn't freak me out.  Some video images can make me wince - like that wretched scene in American History X when Ed Norton puts that kid's teeth against the curb - but I usually have a strong stomach.  In fact, I don't think that my sickness while watching "The Ghosts of Abu Graib" had to do so much with the bloody images of torture, but the smiling faces of American soldiers while it was all happening.

Is it just me, or were these service people the dumbest, most bovine, honky-ass, short-bus soldiers ever?  I realize that we need soldiers, but why aren't we doing a better job of spreading the brains around the operation.  These were military police, and most of them sounded like legal morons.  This surprises me, because most of the army/navy/marines I know are bright people.  The idea that America's military leaders ordered torture is scary - but it is even more scary to think about ineptly supervised rogue squadrons, wreaking havoc on villains and civilians alike.

What has happened to this country?  Or - maybe a better question is - where have I been?   Why am I not constantly outraged?  Since watching this film, I haven't written any letters to government officials - I've not made much of a stir, outside of a few conversations with professors and my dad.  The topic drains me, and I am reminded of my friend Patrick, who said to me, "Blind patriotism is always a negative force."  I agree that some patriotism/nationalism can be a destructive force, but I never thought about how much damage it could do.  These soldiers who "softened up" the Iraqis really believed that it was in the best interest of their country.  I cannot imagine how torture could ever be in any one's interest. 

Torture is surely a slippery slope.  When does simple stress or strain become permanent damage?  How much is too much?  These questions are hard to answer.  More importantly, how can one possible ethically defend the use of torture in the year 2008?  

America is now known as a country that allows torture to go unpunished (even when resulting in death).  The worst penalty any of those soldiers got was 10 years.  It's shameful.  The pain that I, myself feel about this unjust war has been amplified by this horrible look into the realities of our government's procedures during said war.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Regarding Sontag

pg 3 "Men make war. Men (most men) like war, since for men there is 'some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting' that most women do not feel or enjoy....the killing machine has a gender, and it is male."

I wish I didn't agree with this - but I totally do.

pg 5 "War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped."

I am sooo glad that I agree with this.

pg 12 "The destructiveness of not in itself an argument against waging war unless one things...that violence is always unjustifiable."

It truly is.

pg 18 "If it bleeds, it leads."

Hey - this is just capitalism at work. "Good taste" seems largely irrelevant. The government can't make laws governing EVERYTHING.

pg 20 "...a photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all."

And yet - one's culture will help dictate what is taken from the photograph.

pg 23 "Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be." -Andre Breton

A little confusing - but what an amazing idea. That which is boring, even-keel, cannot be beautiful. I don't necessarily agree unconditionally - but I understand the gorgeousness of what is new, unexpected, shocking.

pg 24 " [keeps] company with death."

pg 29 "...its meaning...depends on...words."

Language persists in importance - even when talking about a captionless photo!

pg 35 "Most wars do not acquire the requisite fuller meaning."

Does this increase the pain felt? Decrease empathy?

pg 39 "The photographer's intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph."

pg 40 "Suffering from natural causes, such as illness or childbirth, is scantily represented in the history of art."

I'd like to research this more...

pg 41 "...the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked....There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching."

The pleasure of flinching - like going punch for punch. I don't really understand it - but I practice it."

pg 42 "...there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror."

pg 49 "...that invaluable substitute for war, international sports."

Haha. Also - mostly male-dominated, like war. Injuries, great battles - oh yeah.

pg 59 "To catch a death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do..."

I like looking at old-school funeral daguerrotypes.

pg 60 "More upsetting is the opportunity to look at people who know they have been condemned to die."

I really don't want to know.

pg 63 "...the 'terribly distinctness' unnecessary, indecent information."

Indecent. What exactly crosses the line?

pg 75 "The image should appall, and in that terribilita lies a challenging kind of beauty. That a gory battlescape could be a commonplace about images of war made by artists."

Epic films about battle are always beautiful - but real life is so difference.

pg 78 "A photographer that specializes in misery - Sebastiao Slagado." !!!

Interesting job title!

pg 80 "...the spectacular is very much part of the religious narratives by which suffering, throughout most of Western history, has been understood."

Those crazy Catholics. Kidding. But seriously - the Crucifix is a horrible icon for a kid to have to deal with. I liked church somewhat when I was a kid - but that dead body nailed to the splintering wood was most disconcerting.

pg 82 "Habituation is not automatic."

pg 83 "People want to weep."

Why do we?

pg 86 "...the photographs of genocide have gone under the greatest institutional development."

pg 88 "Americans prefer to picture the evil that was there."

Ha - I certainly do!

pg 89 "Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us."

pg 93 "...we have a duty to look at lynching pictures..."

(do we, as Americans?)

pg 95 "Not all reactions are under the supervision of reason and conscience."

pg 95 "...images of the repulsive can...allure."

pg 97 "...we have a degree of the real misfortunes and pains of others."


I had forgotten how very depressing that movie is.

Well - I may not have been affected quite so much the first time I watched this film. At the time, I was very happily engaged. Now that I am dealing with the end of a relationship that was not all bad, my reaction to the movie has changed considerably. I always thought that the premise of the movie was ridiculous. Why ever would you want to erase someone - or need to? You see - usually when I end a relationship, it is just that: I END IT. Perhaps I never really thought about how rough it might be to be on the other side of that - or even to end a relationship through the desire of both partners. Relationships ending - this kind of stuff was never particularly painful for me.

Now - I still think that it would be ridiculous to try to erase my fiance - and even if thinking about him does cause me pain (and oh yes - it does) - our relationship was far too important to me to want to eradicate the memories completely from my brain.

There are some types of pain that I do get rid of when possible, and I will admit that I have used certain substances to temporarily erase hurt from my consciousness. If my muscles ache, or I have a wound of some type, I run for the Ibuprofen. When I get sinus infections (horrid, disgusting things) - I drink gallons of fluids and take codeine for the splitting headaches. Emotional pain is so different, though. It can SEEM physical, but it truly has different implications. Taking ibuprofen every day until a wound heals is one thing - drinking tequila every night to take the edge off of a bad break-up is quite another. While the ibuprofen allows the wound to heal anyway - many methods (at least - the ones I've tried) for getting rid of emotional or psychological pain don't work in the same way. If I drink until I can't feel feelings anymore - my mind is not dealing with the deeper issues - like the body CAN when under the influence of Advil.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Few Thoughts

Firstly, this was an amazing book.  I was a little wary once I got into some of the medical jargon, but even those bits were so interesting I couldn't skip paragraphs.

I had read a V. C. Andrews book regarding a kid who couldn't feel pain, and I thought it was a totally far-out idea.  I definitely didn't think it was an actual condition (congenital analgesia) and I must say it creeps me out.  Especially the bit about these kids later in life - how they eventually can develop the ability to feel pain, and that that type of pain can actually kill.  Death by pain sounds terribly romantic, and I can't imagine this happens a lot - but what a terrifying way to go.

I find it rather interesting when the book touches on pain as it relates to stereotypes.  Women (who sometimes have to go through that whole pesky "childbirth" thing) are seen as "the weaker sex" by many, and apparently many cultures have strange ideas about what kinds of people can "take" pain.  In my experience, it can go many ways.  I think of myself as being kind of a wuss (although - not as wussy as Gigi), but when I cut my thumb wide open with a steak-knife (sorry, Gigi) I had no problem pulling the wound apart to inspect it, clean it, line the pieces up as closely to the original as I could, and wrapping it.  In the book - it was a decorated military man who swooned and fainted at the approach of a sterile needle.  Because pain is so subjective and varied, it seems silly to try an put a label on a group of people as "stoic" or "weak."

I would question the information on page 65, if only from personal experience.  The author claims that statistics would show that men wait and suffer before seeking medical treatment, and that women are much more quick to see a doctor.  In my opinion, there are two types of people who are quick to seek medical attention- those more prone to hypochondria, and those of us who are particularly brave and like to face challenges.  In my experience, most people don't like the idea of having something wrong with them.  I haven't seen any correlation between this and gender.

The description on page 81 of a toothache made me want to cry.  Having my wisdom teeth out was, by far, the most traumatizing experience of my life (at least - of things that happened to my own body).  Pain in the head is just so much more awful than pain in the extremities, in my opinion.  I couldn't escape it.  It wasn't just my body suffering, either.  I was an emotional mess.  I was so messed up from not eating, and then when I tried to eat a few days after the surgery, I ripped apart any healing tissue, and swallowed so much blood that I was up vomiting all night.  That kept me from taking my painkillers, which just compounded the problem.   Have you ever thrown up with a mouth that can only open a centimeter?  Yeah - it was horrifying.  I am sure I will write more about that experience later, so I won't keep boring you now.

"heroine as a particularly powerful narcotic they claimed was free of an addictive potential" - page 112.  Ha.

I love codeine - boy, do I love codeine.

"Gentle Tissue Massage: Delightful" - page 123  (I completely agree.  Go get one done professionally if you never have.  It's LITERALLY like having all the "bad stuff" rubbed right out of your body.)

The placebo response amazes me.  The fact that the brain can do so much about our pain/illness/physical state unconsciously makes me wonder at the incredible machinery that is the body.  Not just humans, either.  Amazing.

When I read on page 150 that doctors thought that infants couldn't feel pain, I wanted to smack 80s doctors upside the head.  What on earth kind of logic is that?  Regardless of the cortex-development - hadn't we learned by the 80s that there is no way that we will ever fully understand the human brain?  Plus - if babies can't feel pain, then why would they cry?  It seems so ridiculous - I had never heard that before.