Musings

Voice as Rorschach

Robert Siegel, longtime host of NPR's All Things Considered, will be leaving his role in 2018.

Driving home from work each evening, I generally listen to NPR’s All Things Considered — and with more attention than I might otherwise muster after a long day. I have enjoyed all the co-hosts, but I especially enjoyed listening to Melissa Block, who left the program in 2015 after having been a part of it for 12 years.

Though it is difficult to describe the qualities that make for a beautiful speaking voice, I can say that Block somehow made me feel like I was the only member of her listening audience. There was a tender, silver-throated warmth to her and a sense, too, that I could pull up a chair to her table and sip a cup of tea with her while she delivered the day’s news; still, she always seemed to have absolute mastery over the delivery of any story.

My feelings about Robert Siegel’s voice, on the other hand, have been shot through with judgment. A radio veteran who has been with the program for 30 years, Siegel has “[o]ne of the most distinctive voices on NPR’s airwaves“; yet, while it may be that off-air he is a very kind soul, his voice sounds just this side of about-to-make-a-mockery. And, from the sound of it I have always seen him thus: pink-faced; thin and small; balded; dressed during summer in short-sleeved shirts; thin, bowed lips the color of raspberry Popsicle.

It wasn’t until I learned that he was retiring that I had an occasion to see his photo, and I have to say I was taken aback. There is a darker density to him that I do not hear when I listen to him speak. I hadn’t imagined the facial hair either, which certainly changes things.

Image credit

Love trumps Trump.

woman-pulling-on-sock

Last Saturday, I went to pull on a sock and instead pulled every major muscle in my mid-back. I fell flat out on the bed and sobbed — not so much because of the physical pain, though the pain was considerable, but because Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.

In the days preceding the back event but following the election, I was left to contend with an unremitting migraine behind the left eye, a bout of despair diarrhea, and a stress-induced shingles episode that, among other things, left my shoulder numb. The body is a genius.

It would be wrong, though, to think that I am yet one more aggrieved American adding to the volumes of articles written about Donald Trump and his last-gasp entourage of greedy, self-interested, racist, anti-Semitic, white-skinned misogynists since, as Jon Stewart in his understated and affecting interview with Charlie Rose reminds us, not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. Some, he says, are afraid about their health insurance premiums.

For 11 days now, I have borne witness to my unfettered feelings of anger and fear, and I have seen the underbelly of contempt I possess towards my particular version of “the other”; yet, while I am not proud about admitting I am a container for the very darknesses I ascribe to those I already have condemned to the wrong side of history, I am happy to report I still have a heart that beats stronger for love than it does for hate.

There is my daughter, whom I have loved freely and unconditionally every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year for more than three decades. No one taught me how to feel this love. It appears to have come in the same box with the rest of my parts.

And no one told me how, or why, to love A., whom I have loved without end for some 17 years in spite of the fact that these feelings have never been reciprocated. Something from within (or from without) winged me to him, or him to me, and I came to know, without knowing, that I was to love him without condition or expectation.

The love I feel both for my daughter and for A. is a very great mystery, and I can say only that love’s capacity to awaken us and to help us evolve from the pipsqueaks we really are puts into perspective the shallow affairs of nasty men, who, like the rest of us, will one day fall to dust.

Image

Just thought I’d share

Image result for preggers

The other day my colleagues were talking about the difficulty they have discussing sex with their male clients. The reasons for this shyness with the “emerging adults” in our program are complex, but, to illustrate the complexity, I told them about an experience I had had just the day before.

My supervisor, whom I adore (I realize this point is apropos of nothing), and my counterpart at work were discussing the sister of one of our young men when I blurted, “She’s, uh, with child, isn’t she?” Had I wanted to sound any more like a character straight out of “The Monk’s Tale,” I might have asked, “Hath she child in womb?”

We laughed heartily when I said, “I don’t know why I couldn’t just come out and say the word p-p-p-pregnant,” but later I reflected on my embarrassment (interestingly, in Spanish the word for “pregnant” is embarazada). I realized I had never been comfortable using that word because the “preg” part of it conjures for me the act of a man impregnating a woman — as in putting his (p word) in her (v word) and depositing his (s word). So asking flat out if the woman being discussed was pregnant also could have suggested that I might have had intimate knowledge of how she came to be with child in the first place.

Image

location, location, location

Last night I brought my new license plates to bed with me, and I admit I felt pretty pleased with life. It has taken me more than two years to finish replanting myself and to grow some shoots after a long period of defoliation, so there was cause for delight. During the time of my walkabout, I had no permanent address — not that any address is permanent in the grand design — because I had sold my condo, which would have floated down river had it been any more under water, and had set out to find my future.

To begin the adventure I slept for several months on a friend’s scratchy couch; by my choosing, we are no longer friends. I stayed with my daughter under a few roofs, and we soldiered on, but barely. I lived for a good stretch in a sad hotel with a kitchen, and I almost got used to the brown carpet and the plastic plates. Finally, I ended up in a boarding house for the unhinged, where even the cats had lost their minds, and I knew then that my wandering days were coming to a merciful close.

I wouldn’t recommend dislocation to most people since human animals typically tend toward amassment and above all seek comfort and safety, but I can say to those who have an interest that my experience taught me to loosen my grip on all things earthly, except for Keurig’s Dark Magic coffee, and to seek a higher, more ethereal location. Still, as I looked at those license plates resting where another might find her lover, I understood that they were an emblem of my transfiguration, and I was more than a little pleased to share a bed with them.

Image

Fast track to heaven

two-one-dollar-bills

Recently, the US Department of Transportation sent me two dollars as a way of thanking me for filling out, or for even considering filling out, a survey about my transportation needs. Actually, though, the survey wasn’t addressed to me; it was addressed to any resident of my city who lives (or stays) where I live or who collects mail from my box and reads it.

While two dollars is not twenty dollars or two hundred dollars or two thousand dollars, two dollars is not nothing. Sure, I have received other incentives to take an action I might not otherwise take: free stamps, free Christmas stickers, free return address labels, and free quarters taped to the mailers they accompanied. But pocketing two unearned bucks places me more squarely on the road to Shame City than does nabbing address labels, say. If I took the two dollars without responding to the survey, I would have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a theft, if only on a karmic level. If, however, I took the labels without doing what had been asked of me, I am pretty certain I would escape God’s wrath because God knows I could never find in myself any interest in using such things.

Were I a member of the other political party, I might take the money, crumple up the survey, and rant about big government wasting my hard-earned cash. I might not even recycle the paper it was printed on because I could see myself thinking that God has put a never-ending supply of trees on this green earth for my benefit alone, and I might also think that if I recycle I am just supporting another one of those government scams designed to bilk me out of even more of my dough.

But me, I feel gratitude for the money not only because two bucks is not nothing but also because I can well imagine the drama surrounding any decision made to stuff fistfuls of dollars into envelopes addressed to no one in particular and to send these out into the world with the knowledge that much of the cash could end up in the trash bin with the rest of the unopened junk mail. To be sure it was a gamble, but, at a time when data dictates who gets funding, it was a good one. I might not complete the survey today or tomorrow, but each day I lollygag the good angel sitting on my shoulder will be whispering into my ear that I need to get it done if I want to make it through those Pearly Gates.

Image

Keep Cooly Cool Girl

I want to talk about the ego and about sex, but separately. They are entwined, yes. Inextricably so. But at the moment I’m not up for wading into that morass.

All by itself, though, the ego is very interesting territory to explore. Once someone said of me that I had no ego, and my ego was very proud to have heard this. At the time it seemed like a compliment, but I have come to see that we cannot be without this layer to our personality. It keeps us on the lookout for lions and tigers that might want to have us as dinner. It propels us forward into our lives when perhaps we would wish to lay down in the forest, grow moss, and die. And, it enables us to think more highly of our capabilities than maybe we ought, which at times is not such a bad thing in this dog-eat-dog world.

Recently, this ego of mine decided it should take a Spanish course that would challenge it supremely, so we signed up for a relatively advanced course at the college where I teach (I can take one free class a year)—in spite of the fact that I haven’t practiced the language in earnest for quite some time. I also decided to take it for a grade so that I would be sure to do the work, since this ego I have happens to respond exceptionally well to the pressure of going after an “A.” And, what’s more, it wants nothing less than an “A.”

But it is not just the grade that has been motivating me to do my very best. The professor is a colleague, and we are in the same department, so I would feel quite ashamed of myself (that ego again) if I did poorly on any assignment or exam, came to class without my homework, gave an incorrect answer (often he calls on me), or said something idiotic in front of a roomful of twenysomethings.

On this last point, though, no one but the instructor, and another student about my age who on the first day made a beeline for me when she saw how young everyone else was, and the young man who sits next to me knows I am also a teacher at the college. It would not be the least bit graceful or appropriate of me to let the other students know this. And, ego aside, I’m in the class to learn, so in that regard the playing field is level, and I neither deserve nor want any special treatment.

As for the sex part—well, it does fit in here: You see, we often begin class by having a conversation with the person sitting next to us, and we are given questions to ask each other that generally correspond to what we are learning in our textbooks. So, last week my neighbor (an awfully nice guy who still lives with his family) and I were waxing eloquent in Spanish about our exercise and health habits, and we came upon a question having to do with whether we smoked and, if we smoked, at what age we started.

After I told him that I began smoking when I was ten (it was more like nine), and after clearing up for him that he hadn’t misunderstood my Spanish, I said that I had been a “delincuente juvenil.” We laughed at this, and he told me I had come a long way (at least I no longer smoke). But later in the car, I reflected on my use of the word “delinquent” and thought about what I had really meant by it.

When I was young I certainly was not rebel-without-a-cause delinquent, though I confess to having broken a few windows, deflated a few tires, written on a few clean walls, and guzzled more than a few beers all before exiting my adolescence. Rather, what I was labelling as “delinquent” was more west-side-story,  young-girl-hot-for-George-Chakiris delinquent. In fact I was smitten by this Romeo and Juliet-esque musical, and my seeing it right when I did happened to correspond with my sexual awakening. A perfect storm, it seems, since I believe it was then that my lifelong attraction to very bad boys, which probably began in early childhood, was given wings. Yet, it was not just sexual heat I felt in response to what I saw on the screen: It was more that, through the film, I was able to find in myself a deep passion for being fully alive, which existed nowhere else around me, and I must have thought this would save me. I still do.

“Daddy, why doesn’t the sky fall on us?”

Recently I learned about Quora while reading a blog post by a woman whose writing I admire. In no time, I was signing up with the question-and-answer website and soon after was receiving daily digests of sometimes nonsensical but almost always compelling questions that were accompanied by sometimes nonsensical but almost always compelling answers. Here are some examples of the questions you would receive if you signed up:

  • According to the theory of evolution, why do we die?
  • What is the sickest thought you have ever had?
  • What is it like to marry a doctor?
  • How do I become an interesting person in real life?
  • What’s the creepiest thing you have heard a child say?
  • What are some bad experiences of guys who have a very hot wife?
  • How does knowing the Latin origin of a word help me in any way?
  • Why would my teen daughter keep urinating on towels in her room when her bedroom is right next to the bathroom?
  • Is “Please find attached my resume” grammatically correct?
  • How would a dog react if I tried to lick its face?
  • If you smell marijuana being smoked by a neighbor in their backyard, should you notify the police?

And Quora is not the only website of its kind; there are heaps of them: Ask.com, ChaCha, Google Questions, WikiAnswers, and Yahoo! Answers, to name several. What I find more interesting than the actual questions asked and answered on these sites, however, is the fact that such sites exist at all. So, I thought I would do a little thinking out loud about the appeal of reading random questions and answers, the latter of which, I’m sorry to report, are not always based in fact—and are not always grammatical.

Peter Baskerville, who bills himself as “Teacher, Edupreneur, and Father of Three” and who has been “Top Writer” for Quora each year since 2012, maintains that the site (and, by extension, others like it) “fills a massive learning-needs gap that currently exists for the people of the planet.”

As an educator and as a longtime proponent of online teaching and learning, I think I might have a sense of what Baskerville means by a “massive learning-needs gap,” though I am hard-pressed to understand how knowing what it’s like for a man to have a “hot wife” is going to help me become a better-informed global citizen. But that’s just me.

No, I think our interest in reading random questions and answers has more to do with our ever-increasing hunger for bite-sized, distractive information parading as essential information and with our brains’ shrinking capacity to identify what is genuinely important; to think deeply about a topic; or to make creative, thoughtful connections between seemingly disconnected ideas.

We have arrived at this moment in history with the attention spans of four-year-olds on a road trip who, from the back seat, call out absently to their parents in the front: “Mommy, can I still play with my dolls when I go to Heaven?” and “Daddy, why did you marry Mommy?” and “Mommy, will I turn colors after I die?” and “Daddy, what is a fish stick?”

Image