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Nameless, but not a stereotype

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A New York Times article drew a comparison between Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the connection prompted reflection on media treatment of women and girls who allege rape.

As Jeffrey Toobin reported in his 2009 New Yorker piece about Polanski, in 1977, Samantha Gailey - the 13 year-old girl who Polanski raped - was subjected to invasive grand jury questioning about her prior sexual activity and drug use.  Her lawyer was sufficiently concerned about the trauma she would suffer on the witness stand that he advocated for a resolution to the case that would absolve her of testifying.

Thirty-four years later, the woman alleging rape has been - and will continue to be, if the law prevails - afforded a much wider scope of privacy protection.  Her name has not been released in the American press (although it has been in France).  Her face was not exposed to the press when she identified DSK in a line-up at the police station.  And if she gives grand jury testimony, she will not be subject to irrelevant questions about her prior sexual activity.

Nonetheless, although our law has made some strides, our discourse seems to have a way to go still.  Speaking to the press, the woman's lawyer, Jeffrey J. Shapiro, referred to her as "simple," as in "She is a simple housekeeper who was going into a room to clean a room."  Considering that Mr. Shapiro also offered this gem - "Her story is her story, which she has told to everyone who asked her" - legitimate questions arise as to who is simple.

Mr. Shapiro also admitted ignorance about the facts underlying her asylum claim (which was granted despite the stringent interpretations given by U.S. judges to already high standards), and - even more unprofessionally - answered a question about her immigration status by saying he was "unsure," thereby potentially opening his client to a visit from the INS.

I know only the barest outline of this woman: she is 32.  A widow.  She is refugee from Guinea.  She was granted asylum in the U.S.  She has a 15 year-old daughter and a brother who owns a restaurant in Harlem.  She has been employed at the Sofitel in Times Square for 3 years.  She is a Muslim.  She speaks French and English.

Although not mentioned in any media I saw, one reason U.S. courts grant asylum to Guinean women is that they have been subjected to - or fear they or their daughters will be subjected to - female genital mutilation.  Apart from this concern, Guinea is a politically unstable country, overrun with cocaine and violence.  An example: in 2009 security forces controlled by junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara opened fire on protesters, killing many and brutally raping women.

Even this scant information suggests that the woman in the center of the DSK storm is not a "simple housekeeper," but a human being who has weathered intense experiences, a survivor with capacities for adaptation and resiliency, a person who has known pain and grief, a mother, a believer - in short, a woman entitled to dignity, respect and the assumption of individual complexity that we enjoy about ourselves and that we extend to others for whom we care.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry into her accusation, whether the law vindicates or castigates her, she is not Aunt Jemima.  If our discourse cannot capture her more accurately, the stereotype will not be her, but us: racists.

(Image of Jeffrey J. Shapiro from his website)

IMF, international aid: screwed

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DSK.jpgDominique Strauss-Kahn is an economist, not a lawyer, but I nonetheless feel that he would have done well to have held himself to the lawyer's standard of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety

Without weighing in on his guilt or innocence, I feel compelled to condemn the apparent impropriety in which he engaged.  I do not refer merely to the sexual assault charge, but more broadly to the situation of the head of the IMF being accused of coercing sex from a Guinean refugee granted asylum in the U.S. and working as a hotel housekeeper.  The symbolism is unmistakable: the IMF rapes Africa.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry now underway, DSK has sunk the credibility of his organization and its mission.  The IMF is now an organization that overpays horny white men so they can fly first class and wear $7,000 suits and, when they get out of those suits, rape hard-working, devout, socially-disadvantaged people of color. 

And by extension, the same applies to the World Bank, the UN or, for that matter, USAID.  They are no different.

One's opinion of the IMF (or any of the other foregoing named institutions) - whether for good or for ill - is no matter.  The IMF is a public institution, and one that exerts control over much of the global economy and its wealth.  As such, the ethics of its institutional behavior, and the actions of its representatives, must be impeccable.  Public institutions owe the public guarantees that their operations are ethical; otherwise they are illegitimate and have no claim to public funds. 

To have betrayed this obligation to the public so flamboyantly and vulgarly is unforgivable.  No verdict of innocence can expunge this breach.  Whatever else DSK may have done, he has set back the cause of international development.

(Image of DSK from The Telegraph)

The readiness is all

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Seven months ago, I saw the (British) National Theatre's production of Hamlet in London, and it was brilliant.  The director, Nicholas Hynter, dropped the royal house of Denmark into the security apparatus of modern governments.  In addition to imbuing the play with the excitement and suspense of a political thriller, this present-day setting made the power dynamics of the play come violently alive.   

In keeping with the modernity of the production, Peter Holland - writing in the program's playbill - offered an interpretation of Hamlet's dilemma that seems tailored to today's psycho-analyzed, cosmopolitan, post-deconstructionist, alienated audience:

[Hamlet] approaches a paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached by his thinking: the more he is able to grasp his awareness of how he knows anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative . . . . Confronted with the enormity of that crisis of truth, the only response is to "Let be," to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes.
The quote to which Holland refers comes at the end of the play, when Horatio is exhorting Hamlet to listen to himself and decline to fight Laertes: "If your mind dislike any thing, obey it."  Hamlet responds by dismissing his feeling of foreboding, saying - in essence - we're all going to die and we don't know when, so what does it matter if it's soon?  "The readiness is all . . . Let be."

I don't know if Shakespeare ever ran a marathon.  I doubt it.

Nor do I have any insight as to whether Peter Holland ever ran a marathon, but he has a goatee, so I think it's unlikely.

Nonetheless, both men seem intimately familiar with the modern marathoner's mindset.  After months of single-minded physical labor, abstinence from late nights, booze and any semblance of vice, the marathoner surrenders to reality: the preparation is all you can do; after that, as my brother says, "anything can happen in a marathon."

In fact, the "anything" that happened to my brother during last Sunday's marathon in Prague, was a pretty damned impressive "anything."  He ran 3:15:57, which is not the kind of fate one can complain about.  Had my brother gone off to fight Laertes, the play would have had a different ending.

Not so with me.  My legs all but shattered, and I staggered across the finish line 5 hours, 9 minutes, and 54 seconds after I started.  I never ran slower in my life.  Indeed, during training, I ran 22 and 23 miles in roughly four hours; but the race was nothing like training: blisters on my toes, leg muscle cramps, and an extended stretch of walking were all present during the race and noticeably absent during training.  Had I been tapped to duel with Laertes, death would have arrived on the playwright's schedule.

While I've had enough exposure to truly rotten fates to refrain from describing mine as one about which I can complain, my situation is nonetheless dispiriting - all the more so because, from the outset, I saw running the marathon as a metaphor for how I live my life, a microcosm that reveals the whole.  I became attracted to this idea last year, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and discovered that the key to reaching the peak was going slow and surrendering to the limitations imposed by the environment.  I blogged about the inspiration I drew from my mountain experience to persevere in my writing.

Unfortunately, the take-away here is less upbeat.  Months of planning and work, tireless effort, deprivation of socializing and fun, dieting, forswearing alcohol, money spent on clothes, shoes and supplements - not to mention all the acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and masseuses who toiled to get my legs race-ready - resulted in a completely disastrous performance.  Enthusiasm, willpower, investment of resources: all easily come to nothing.

I thought I'd already learned this truism the hard way.  Six years of work, discipline and sacrifice to write novels have yielded (a) four novels on the shelf, as of yet unpublished and unread, and (b) a state of near bankruptcy.  Rejection is the only constant, and my life is so unstable that I've come to feel for rejection a wry and perverted gratitude: it's the only thing I can rely on. 

It also make me want to vomit.  Not just vomit, but curl up in a ball on the curb and stay there.  When your rock is rejection, maybe you're better off under the stone.

Of course, I'm not the first to feel this way.  I refer to the aforementioned "paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached" when "the more [I am] able to grasp [an] awareness of how [I] know[] anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all.  The process of knowing makes all truth only relative" - although I add, no less painful for being relative.  "[T]he only response is to 'Let be,' to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes."

While I'm constitutionally constrained from waiting patiently - the best I can muster is waiting in a state of thinly-veiled neurosis and sincerely-felt misery - I take the larger point.  "The readiness is all" because it's all we can control.  The loss of control reduces us to paralysis - metaphorically, literally or, if we're really unlucky, both.  Though being without control is an aspect of reality, living in that reality without being sabotaged by it requires a mental discipline of preferring, and prioritizing, what you can control.

That's our choice: lopsided or frozen.

And here, at last, is the metaphor I'll draw: even a lopsided runner (like myself, suffering from a biomechanical breakdown in her right leg) can finish a marathon.

(Images of Maya Alexandri and Talmon Alexandri running the Prague marathon on 8 May 2011 compiled by Maya Alexandri)

Audiobook recording the hard way

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The_face_of_frustration.jpgBack in January, I blogged about recording my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, as an audiobook.  I am sorry to say that the experience has taught me several life lessons in the manner through which I most commonly learn: the hard way.

First lesson: location, location, location!  Eureka, California is about as good a place for recording an audiobook as coastal Japan is for a nuclear power plant.  Quite simply, the audio engineer talent isn't in Eureka.  If you want an audio engineer who is incapable of recording the spoken word inside a booth without also recording himself zipping up his hoodie outside the booth - along with picking up other technical noises, like 60-cycle hums, which shouldn't be on the track - then by all means, record in Eureka. 

Second lesson: notwithstanding my default assumption that most people in the world are basically well-intentioned and doing the best they can, the world is occasionally peopled with unprofessional, unethical scoundrels.  Such folk may be disguised as soft-spoken, physically-pathetic, socially-awkward sound engineers to whom one may be predisposed to show kindness.  But for reasons known best to themselves, the mask slips, and they reveal themselves: in my case, the incompetent sound engineer held my master audio file hostage and demanded a ransom of more than a hundred dollars in excess of the hundreds of dollars I'd already paid him . . . for an ultimately unusable recording.    

Third lesson:  people who deserve to be sued don't have to be sued by you.  I didn't pay the ransom, but I did retain a lawyer.  And another sound engineer.  The lawyer sent a demand letter, which threatened to sue the first sound engineer if he didn't return the master audio file to me.  The second sound engineer meanwhile analyzed some mp3 files made from the master audio file, a process that revealed that the master was hopelessly flawed and useless. 

Thus, when the first sound engineer responded to the demand letter by refusing to return the master audio file, I found myself without much reason to pursue litigation.  I could ask for a refund, yes, and punitive damages, as well; but the impetus for the suit had never been money: the audio recording was my voice, my novel, my creation - and I wanted it back.  If it was, in fact, unusable, then I wasn't much interested in being the instrument of punishment for the Eureka-based, unprofessional, unethical sound engineer: let adult-onset diabetes, or some other lifestyle disease related to his obesity and general decrepitude, finish him off.

Fourth lesson:  the fact that I paid $1,150 to two sound engineers and an attorney and ended up with nothing isn't the kind of fact that I should dwell on.  Financial loss is an unavoidable fact of life, especially for artists, and apparently for me in particular, and acceptance is the only manner of dealing that isn't going to impair my quality of life (to say nothing of my emotional calm).  Instead, I will focus on this soothing, amusing quote from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, in which Aziz says:

If money goes, money comes.  If money stays, death comes.  Did you ever hear that useful Urdu proverb?  Probably not, for I have just invented it.  
The Swing of Beijing will be available as an audiobook at some future, but as-of-yet undetermined, date.

(Photo of Alice Forney personifying the Goddess of Frustration in Relation to Sound Recordings by Maya Alexandri)

Adventures in ba guan

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"Do you fear pain?"

The woman asking me this questions was a cute, young migrant worker named Nana.  She was wearing a white lab coat,  and standing - with a lit firebrand in one hand and a glass cup in the other - in the cramped back room of a hair salon.  I, meanwhile, was lying in my underwear on a massage table, my hair easily within combustion proximity of the flame.

"No," I replied, figuring that amusement was the only reasonable response.  Nana looked confused, but after muttering how most clients were scared of pain, she proceeded with the treatment.

For the record, getting ba guan (usually called "cupping" in English) had not been my idea.  Rather, a Chinese friend at the gym had recommended it.  I'd been explaining how I was trying to lose ten pounds before a marathon (lighter is faster), and she told me that her ba guan practitioner guaranteed ten pounds of weight loss in a month.  She added that she had purchased a series of treatment that she wasn't going to use, and that I could take her sessions for free.

Thanking her and open to trying - well, just about anything - I thus found myself in the aforementioned posture, flesh exposed to fire. 

The fire was not mere theatrics.  Ba guan practitioners insert the firebrand into the cup to suck the oxygen from the space and create a vacuum.  They then apply the cup to flesh, and the vacuum draws blood to the surface of the skin.  (In my experience, the treatment doesn't hurt.)  In theory, the treatment kickstarts one's qi, getting stagnant blood moving and generally supporting enhanced metabolic functioning.

In practice, the cups were falling off my body. 

Nana was becoming increasingly flustered.  "Maybe ba guan is not appropriate for you," she offered.  "Or maybe I'm doing it badly."

"Did you study Chinese medicine?" I asked.

"说实在的,我不好学," she replied.  What she said was ambiguous: it could have meant either that she didn't study at all, or that she had studied, but had done poorly.  Either way, it didn't inspire confidence.

After two sessions, I'd actually gained weight.  "That's not possible," Nana objected.

"It's not a question of possible," I said.  "It happened."

Nana seemed unwilling to accept this distinction.  She wanted me to see her boss, who was a Chinese medicine doctor. 

Dr. Tan was serious, but skeptical.  "Our method shrinks the stomach," she said.  "But you're eating more because your training for a marathon.  Our method won't work."

I assured her that I was eating very little, and Dr. Tan began the treatment.  The cups fell off my body.

"Was it me?" Nana poked her head into the treatment room.

"It wasn't you," Dr. Tan announced.  "Because she [that's me, folks] is a foreigner, she has body hair that prevents the cups from sticking.  Ba guan is not appropriate for her."

I didn't bother protesting that my arms and (shaved) legs were unlikely to pose body hair obstacles to cupping.  Amused acceptance seemed the only reasonable response.

I didn't manage to lose the 10 pounds before I ran the marathon. 

(Image of ba guan treatment from Confucius Institute Online)      

The books ain't helping

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Dan_Chiasson.jpgI attended law school during tumultuous years when affirmative action was being phased out, and my legal education is indelibly fused with a serious dose of American race-based identity politics.  I accepted the paradigm and my place within it because I believed (and continue to believe that) doing so is morally necessary; the unfairnesses of the alternatives are intolerable. 

Since law school, however, I've lived overseas in environments where American-style race-based identity politics appear absurd.  Racial classifications in China, India and Kenya - where I've spent most of my time since 2004 - exist, of course.  Broadly speaking, such classifications are enormously crude, relatively overt and highly-tolerated by the societies.  Jargon and academic methodologies haven't yet throttled these inequalities: they are facts of life.  If one chooses to engage them, one does so concretely, not conceptually. 

As a result of my experience, I stubbed my reading flow on the following passage in Dan Chiasson's otherwise fine New York Review of Books review of Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois' book, The Anthology of Rap:

Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the American tragedy of whites trying and failing to understand blacks. Age incomprehension is comic, since everyone young eventually grows old; race incomprehension is tragic, since nobody knows what it is like to change races.
I'm guessing that, thirteen years ago, when I was in the fishbowl of American race relations, these sentences would have seemed moderate and sensible.  My view now is a bit different. 

What strikes me first is the lack of proportion.  American race relations certainly has its tragic dimensions, most saliently its violence and its capacity for depriving large swathes of humanity of the fundaments of life - including recognition of their humanity.  But whites trying and failing to understand blacks isn't high on the list of "tragic" elements in the American race relations saga.

Next is the lack of precision.  Chiasson begins talking about whites trying to understand blacks, but then recharacterizes the issue as "nobody knows what it is like to change races."  In this shift, problems abound.

First, people do know what changing races feels like: people pass (for instance, Anatole Broyard).

But the larger issue is that achieving understanding across the racial divide and "chang[ing] races" aren't equivalent.  "Chang[ing] races" is not the point: being another race is. 

The question is not one of whether whites can understand blacks, but whether anyone can understand being a different race than the one into which he or she has been born.  In assigning whites an empathetic task without a reciprocal role for blacks, Chiasson assumes a typical, American identity-politics "moral white person" responsibility that manages nonetheless to dehumanize blacks by exempting them from the empathetic tasks inherent in the social contract. 

The obvious situation in which this variety of one-way empathy works is in the animal rights context: we're supposed to feel compassion for the rat in the cancer drug trial, but the rat has no burden of empathy for the cancer patient whose life is saved by the drug.  I'll admit that I have doubts as to whether this paradigm is appropriate for animals; I have no doubt that non-reciprocal empathetic relations are not suitable for humans.  

Once Chiasson's issue is framed in terms of anyone's capacity to understand the racial experience of anyone else, the issue isn't tragic, but universal.  (I doubt that Chiasson would have written, for example, that blacks trying and failing to understand whites is tragic.) 

The problem isn't even particularly American, but one that has arisen between peoples interacting for eons.  Power and wealth imbalances between the groups are better indicators of the extent of eventual understanding that any member of either group will achieve (or not) than are classifications of "white" and "black."  Only unusual people (and never the group as a whole) will deviate from the pattern set by his or her group's demographic profile.

Which brings me to my final observation about the quoted passage: its disconnect from actual interactions between white and black people.  Indeed, Chiasson's next sentence is: "Growing up in Vermont, I met a total of one black person." 

An empathetic attempt grounded in the concrete, rather than the conceptual - and Chiasson goes on to discuss looking up "afro" in the dictionary - seems likely to have yielded a different insight, perhaps this one:  Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the reality that too many American whites and blacks are willing to settle for superficial relations defined by commercialism, vulgarity and distanced hyper-conceptualization.     

This abstract compartmentalization of race matters doesn't defend us or protect us from whatever we fear from engaging the issues concretely.  To the contrary, such extreme conceptualization only corrupts our thinking.  Inevitably it implicates books in our dirty work: in this blog post alone, an anthology, a book review and a dictionary have been caught aiding and abetting. 

American race relations may be the only topic as to which I would advocate: Read less.  Engage more.  Don't settle.
(Image of Dan Chiasson from Wellesley College website) 
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About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Life category.

Humanitarian work is the previous category.

Maya Alexandri's Novels is the next category.



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