(Over)Killing Racism in the Book Club?

Reading While White  I swiped this logo from  a site of the same name because. . .In my book club group last night, I was accused of splitting hairs when I pointed out that I was surprised to find racial stereotypes in our reading of Like Water for Chocolate.  Set in Mexico during the revolution, the main character, Tita has a sister who overcome by the main character’s own emotions, becomes hot with passion, and while naked runs off with a stranger on horseback and commences to a sensuous coupling right then and there as they ride off into the sunset.  Later we hear how she was so filled with desire that she worked in a whorehouse in order to feed her needs; even hundreds, possibly thousands of men could not quench her sexual thirst.  Later the same sister dances at a wedding, exhibiting enviable moves that no one in the family knew she had.

Tita discovers through secret love letters of her mother’s that this horny, promiscuous, dancing sister was the child of an illicit affair with a Black Man. Uh-Oh. Tita then says, “Oh, I know now why my sister is so sexual and can dance. . .” or something to that effect.

This is the same character who has earlier complained of how white people stereotype her Mexican people and are unwilling to learn their medicinal-spiritual ways. . .so I said to my group, “I was pretty surprised to read what she said about her sister, those racial stereotypes.  What’s up with that?”

A few of us joked that maybe the author wrote this in the time of Archie Bunker and just had not learned yet anything about how offensive racial profiling was.  And isn’t “black rhythm” in music, dance and sex the most common, stale of stereotypes.

Another woman suggested that perhaps the author did this intentionally to show authentically how people really thought back then.

One woman pulled up Trump’s latest racist vitriol on her phone to illustrate it “Isn’t just back then. . .”

I said, “Maybe it’s authentic, but Tita was so sensitive to racial stuff directed to her.”

Another woman responded, “Maybe it was to underscore how people can be hypocrites.”

Two of the quieter women in the group grumbled at us, well at me primarily.  One said, “Geez, I didn’t read that at all,  I didn’t catch Tita saying anything racist. . .where did she say that?”  I agree: it was a quick comment.  Easy to overlook.

The other one rolled her eyes, and said, “Keren’s just splitting hairs now, really. . .”  And then leaned over to grumble something nastier more privately to her seat mate, but clearly annoyed that I had even brought this up.

She’s grumbling because I am the same one who disliked the now celebrated book—soon to be a movie near you—The Pecan Man.  Sure, it’s a quick, even enjoyable, little read that is self-admittedly derivative of so many other well-done southern books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, even The Help, etc., with its small-town southernisms, its testy, feisty, but gentile white ladies, and their black servants with a heart of gold.

Our book club discussions always start with a survey of who liked the reading.   For The Pecan Man,  I was the only one of 20 readers who didn’t raise her hand, and suddenly I was beset by demands to know why.  One after the other I was confronted, as if I hurt their feelings by disliking what they enjoyed.  And then after about the fifth person angrily said to me, “You think she stole this?” because I had said book was derivative, I said, “Ok,  I can defend my opinion all evening, but I know you don’t want that. Here’s my perspective on why I don’t like this book.”  And I shared my thoughts about it not only being a knock off of sorts, but just another white hero book.

Aside from this common plot line, I was really, REALLY disappointed in how, even in this modern age, we still are learning lessons about racism from white characters who rescue black characters.

I am white, yes.  And I certainly cannot relate to racism, though I am sensitive enough to know it hurts.  How much it hurts, how much it affects people of color is not something white people can begin to understand.  But I have taught children of color for decades; they are my family to some degree.  And I abhor bringing some of these novels before them, even To Kill a Mockingbird.   Any book that teaches what it’s like to be an African-American or a Mexican or a Native American, etc.  from a white person’s experience seems ludicrous, especially when there are fantastic books out there, (much more real and painful books of course).  Black Boy,   The Invisible Man,  The Bluest Eye are some of the classics; some more modern takes are Loving Day, Between the World and Me.

Yet, here we are still reading the sweet Little Pecan Man in schools where the main character is white, and yes, she learns about her own hypocrisy, but she and (mildly, possibly) another white character are the only ones who are actively trying to make change.  All the black characters are impotent: either too angry, too scared, too shackled to do anything but die or go to jail, and must lean on the main character. Really?  Still reading this type of plot line in this day and age?

Plus, I added: How good is it for kids, of any race, to continue to read work where the white man saves the day for people of color?  How weak do the black characters still need to be?  In fact, in The Pecan Man we are supposed to see going to jail as a heroic move on a black man’s part, and not because he was arrested for protesting, but for assuming the responsibility for a crime he did not commit.  Sure the book is set in the 70s, but it was written in today’s world, and it is being assigned in schools now.

And as a white woman among black students, how sensitive is it to “teach racism” to black children who live it everyday from a white main character?

Some of my reading group peers were receptive to my point of view, others just rolled their eyes. But it is why the one woman thought I was splitting hairs about  Like Water for Chocolate.  She saw me as “just looking for racist stuff” now. . .a rabble rouser for no good reason.  (I stifled my urge to accuse her of voting for Trump primarily because the comments in the book were quick, short though stood right out to me.)

Am I splitting hairs?  Is it important to notice and voice when you see unnecessary racism in literature or movies?  (Where the racism in Mudville is integral to the plot, Tita doesn’t need to connect her sister’s behavior to being black does she?)  Is it important to find more relevant novels where blacks are their own heroes?  Sure, it is wise to teach children that not all whites are evil, but when the ultimate lesson is about a racist culture or about stereotypes, what is best?

What do you think?  Do I keep quiet from now on?  Would you?  Or am I just stirring the pot?

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So You Dream of Sarah Lawrence College

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Sarah Lawrence College.  Those words show up yet again on the lips of a young female lead while I’m watching a movie. The writers of these scripts know that Sarah Lawrence is famous for being a number of things: the black sheep of the Ivy League’s Seven Sisters (though not one of the actual seven); expensive education for families who can helicopter their children home for the weekend with their own choppers; artistic and demanding liberal arts icon.

Speaking its name, characters automatically define themselves as people who have big dreams and the necessary ambition to achieve them.  For characters from “the wrong side of the tracks” like Lady Bird, in the similarly named movie, wishing to attend that school also illustrates her desire to cross over those dividing rails from poor to so wealthy that one can afford an education that competes to be the most expensive in the country. Kat Stratford, though more upper-middle-class than poor, was ready to ditch the dull, suburban, cookie-cutter mentality of her peers in Ten Things I Hate about You.  Allie Hamilton in The Notebook illustrates she is the maverick of her wealthy family by returning to her small town from Sarah Lawrence.  Even Mia Thermopolis, a forgotten princess in The Princess Diaries attends SLC.  Mia is the perfect symbol: a smudgy, outsider sort of girl who somehow knows deep down that she is meant for better things, and in this case, she’s blood of royalty. . .she just doesn’t know it yet.  Desiring SLC helps to underscore her crowning.

No other Ivy League school is depicted in this way in fiction.  Sure, in film Harvard or Princeton exudes wealth and snobbery, as Smith and Barnard equal smart, wealthy and serious, but few characters see those places as transformational. Sarah Lawrence represents more, and with more depth, a chrysalis, maybe a crucible.

And having attended, I agree with the writers or directors for their choice.

However, I have a love/hate relationship when I am sitting in a movie and suddenly any character shares the same dreams I had so many years ago: to be an SLC graduate; my experience both met my expectations and also completely disillusioned me.

I write this now to all the young, not-so-wealthy students who look to SLC with starry, unaware eyes.

First, a disclaimer, I attended as a graduate student, so my experience is different from an undergrad’s:  no dorm rooms, no easy access to all the Victorian charms of the campus, fewer classes for fewer years.  And I came in with a college experience in hand which may have stunted or broadened my view.

What I loved so much about Sarah Lawrence College that was so special:  The classes are small, very.  NO huge lecture halls filled with three hundred students where Phd. and Masters candidates grade all papers.  In all of my classes at SLC, typically 8 to 18 students sat around a conference table.  The faculty members do corral the lectures, or in SLC’s case, discussions, but quickly they expect the students to become leaders of the topics.  At no time did a teacher stand at a board and bore me (though I wonder what a math or foreign language class is like there).

What’s even more wonderful is that the students were invested and came prepared to lead the discussions.  And they were smart, clever people, informed, ready to analyze the world.  They were not there to make A’s, but to learn and share knowledge; earning an A was simply a by-product of their enthusiasm.

If you Dreamers like remaining in the background, SLC is not for you: you cannot hide your ignorance or laziness in a sea of anonymity; but I imagine you would not be interested in the first place if you were a wallflower.

Grades were only assigned on transcripts for students who needed to transfer out of Sarah Lawrence, and few students ever bothered to view these transcripts. Otherwise, no individual assignment received a grade.  Papers and projects instead received detailed commentary rather than a simple letter assessment and number range.  At the end of the term, the teacher wrote a summary of the student’s overall performance.  Subjective perhaps, but more meaningful to me.  As an undergrad in a typical university, I was very good at figuring out a simple hoop to jump through for an A.  I couldn’t do that at SLC, thank goodness.  So Grade Grubbers, beware.

I also loved that for every class I met with my “Don” every other week for my own personal research. (Though I would prefer their name to be less Godfather-like, a Don is what SLC names the class teacher, since the college did not have ranked/tenured professorships.)   These meetings were like having a totally separate class.  This meant in writing classes, almost all my work was reviewed by my Don if only a few times by peers in the workshops.  In typical university writing classes, one’s creative writing is critiqued only a few times each semester by the class and professors alike.

My Psychology of Emotion class, made up of graduates and undergrads, discussed the research/readings of the week assigned to all of us.  And I also met with my Don to choose a line of study that was just mine; I had to develop and keep up with it under her vague guidance.  The journey was my own.  She was ultimately impressed by my work (where I used strategies I had learned as an undergraduate in a Methods of Research class).  She was down right excited that I seemed to know what I was doing among a group of students who were wading around in theories but no evidence.

Which brings me to a list of complaints (though I am not finished with my compliments.) Teaching these sorts of solid strategies is not something SLC would be likely to ever do, too methodical and pedantic.  Think of SLC like a large Montessori school for undergraduates with a healthy dose of the Socratic method tossed in.  To learn something as rigid as scientific, objective research practices as defined by the APA seems almost counter intuitive.  I wondered what sorts of dreamy, non-validated, non-empirical conclusions the other students in that class surmised in their personal studies without this foundation.

The methods of exploration and discussion at SLC certainly encourage, sometimes even force students to deepen their knowledge, but some of that knowledge does need to be concrete and structured, perhaps even rote.  What would biology look like at SLC?  Do students memorize the skeleton?  Or do they have deep discussions about the evolutionary differences between the female vs. male skeletons.  I have no idea, though I’d hope both. But remember this is a liberal arts school designed for fresh, creative thinkers, not a research university churning out doctors and engineers.  Plus, my personal research component in my SLC psych class was not encouraged at my undergrad school because it was too busy teaching me those rote lessons.

My next complaint is an important one though it actually might apply to all college and universities.  No Don has been trained on how to teach.  Aside from those Dons in the Early Childhood program, they’ve had zero foundations classes in teaching, or communications classes, or even ethics and law courses related to teaching.  (Perhaps this isn’t necessary since public school teachers study all this which seems to make little difference in the quality of education in our country.)  What this means, however, is that folks who lead classes at SLC are hired for their publications and their work, not their ability to lead or pass on their skill or their honesty and interpersonal skills.  Not every great writer knows how to help amateurs develop into better writers.  Not every director knows how to show future directors how to work the editing machine.

That last complaint literally happened to me. In a Writing and Directing for Film course (where a few famous directors jelled) I had to learn to use a fancy editing machine I had never encountered.  This was before regular, middle-class kids like me had access to digital editing in our homes, before computer programs for such were affordable.  This was for reel/real film, and had plenty of complicated gadgets, entries and exits, buttons and screens.

The teacher met each of us in our bi-weekly one-on-one time to show us how to run the machine.   He showed up to meet me with no handouts, no drawings.  I was supposed to just listen to him as he told me how without demonstration, then as I was listening, I was to work it once, and then remember everything he said for all time. I guess.  And not only that, he got irritated when I started jotting down notes.

“Stop writing and just listen.”

Okay. . .what if I am not that sort of learner.  What if hearing and doing once isn’t enough for little ole me?  And honestly, how hard would it have been to photocopy some simple reminders for nine students?

This underlies a certain laziness that some instructors could, and did, easily fall into at SLC:  compile a list of topics on the syllabus, let the kids lead the class, sit in on meetings with nine separate students and make them do the talking. . .drink coffee and relax.  When the “real work” of reading student papers arrives, make a few standard comments, ditto, and return.  This Writing and Directing for Film teacher was a bit like that on the surface, until he would discuss my work. Then I got real insight.  Plus, we had a number of good laughs in our one-on-ones at the expense of the young men in that class who were strongly influenced by David Mamet at the time and thus believed that tossing in tons of curse words made their work deeply emotional and dramatic, too.  Of course, being ethical, the Don broached a discussion in class after it became too obvious to ignore.

One of my roommates, another middle-class girl from a western state who was in the Graduate Poetry Program had to deal with a Don who was a famous poet, but one of those ride-his-reputation-lazily sorts that she often complained of.  Plus, he had a tendency to surround himself with the prettiest girls, producing rumors of his sexual-conquest-nature.   He came to my city once (long after I had graduated) for a reading.  I helped host a gathering afterward where he was still giving the attention to the lookers in the group like the rockstar he saw himself as. Even his recent obituary, describing how he had left SLC and moved south to my city to teach at a public university, awkwardly hints at his “social” nature.  This sort of possible lechery is pretty common at many colleges and universities, but the one-on-one coursework that I loved at SLC may, on the flip side, open up opportunity that students must steel themselves against.

There is something too personal sometimes about the closeness at Sarah Lawrence, which might allow some unnecessary conflicts with teachers, too.  Such conflicts probably wouldn’t happen with “anonymous” and “distant” teachers overseeing too many students in too many classes at traditional universities and colleges.

In my Graduate Fiction Workshop, we were reading and discussing important short stories.  Here I was assigned to read Katherine Ann Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” for the fourth time in my education (but the fifth reading of my life). The first time I read the story, however, was on my own out of curiousity.   Porter’s work is a cannon example for symbolism and irony, southern irony by the way, the harshest, most darkly-humored sort.  (Read anything by Faulkner, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, or David Sedaris, and you’ll see. . .)

After each reading, I simply became more soldered to my own first conclusion: Granny was jilted by her lover, but ultimately, she was waiting for death and Death would not come for her.   She had “weathered all” and when ready to stop life, was jilted by Death.

Now THAT’s some southern irony for you.  I do not recall the high school discussion other than the class being divided on this issue of whether Granny lived or died, and the teacher not telling us if this is what it was about, but agreeing it was possible.  My undergraduate discussions were very similar, except that after we read the story, we were then privy to an interview where Katherine Ann Porter herself would not admit whether Granny died.  These were the days before the internet and easy access to all literary explanations, so one can be certain that most student reactions were personal.

All of these former class discussions took place in the south. . .we think in metaphor and symbolism more than the puritanical north.  We personify death in our daily lives and literature, and are more likely to see Death as the suitor who jilts Granny as she lies there in her bed all day long, so hopeful.

Yet at SLC, in my graduate class, I was the only one who saw the jilting this way, and the teacher not-so-gently ridiculed me, arguing to the group as if I were a dumbass who could not grasp that, “No, Granny was jilted by her lover, and the candle snuffs out, symbolizing her death.”

Truly, what sort of good southern writer would pen a whole story about an old, dying woman worrying about once being jilted at the altar?  How boring.  Oh, no, Porter’s title is about the real jilting.  The candle snuffing out is simply Death laughing at Granny, a play on an overused symbol.

The teacher was treating me like such a moron, that I finally got defensive and naively said, “I’m not the only one who thinks this. . .I’ve read this a number of times, and each of my classes and teachers thought this was possible.”

And this “leader” says to me in front of everyone: “You need to learn to read deeply instead of parroting what some high school teacher tells you. . .”  I was mortified.  I couldn’t even tell her about the interview; she cut me off and said, “That’s enough about that.”

I had come to my own conclusions, and I’d still argue I am right.  My point is not that I have to be right, nor do I have to have the professor or Don sooth my tender feelings when I need to consider another possibility or truth.  Importantly, my experience really is about intellectual discourse and good teaching practices. 

Sarah Lawrence touts itself as the center of intellectual variety and depth.  In what context does SLC ever argue that the majority thought rules?

But let’s say I am/was wrong.  My perspective was at least intriguing. Alas, I could not begin to utter these words then.

I should never have been put into a defensive position; I should never have been dismissed so summarily.  And most definitely, based on SLC’s supposed interest in diverse thinking, I should have been allowed to explain the southern cultural difference.  However, the Don was as disinterested as could be in diversity that was not “popular.” (A Ukrainian immigrant’s kid, Military Officer Brat, now residing down south.)

Had this Don been a better communicator and leader, she would have stopped and allowed me my own reader’s response instead of belittling me for being on a different path, especially a response that is not off the grid.

Could be she just flat didn’t like me. . .but should that come into context here?  Does it ever say in any of the SLC brochures: “We intend to graduate likable people?”

But then, perhaps she was simply harboring resentment toward me for another event that had occurred at SLC, which leads me to my next complaint.

The faculty then was political beyond typical politics of other schools, especially the writing faculty.  It was small, tightly knit, and seemingly expected everyone on staff to be on the same page.  I had no idea of this.  I had no interest in this.  I was interested in their talents and their insights, but I was unaware of their interior issues.

While there, I served as the treasurer of the Graduate Student Council, a group funded by the student activity fee.  Students petitioned us for money to pay for events, and one petition was for the writer, Cynthia Ozick.  Apparently at the time, though Jewish herself, she had an unpopular opinion about Judaism and Israel.  To be honest, I did not even recall who she was.  I had read her works before, and liked them, but she did not take up space in my head the way other writers had.   Still, she had clearly impressed the group of students who asked the council to fund Ozick’s visit.  The council voted and handed over small change to pay for the woman’s train ticket, dinner, and reading fee.

Wrong move.  Members of writing faculty, primarily Jewish themselves, had some dish with Ozick’s politics and became livid.  Since I was the only writing student on the council, I became a target for their anger.

“You should have known.  You should have asked us!”

Really?  Graduate student councils are in the business of checking with faculty before making decisions about student-funded, student-requested, student-attended author readings?  It had never occurred to me.  I had been on a Visiting Lecturers Committee at my undergraduate school, chairing readings by people like Kurt Vonnegut, Garrison Keillor, and Elie Wiesel that drew full city-sized arenas, and we answered to no one over who came and went. Pleasing our faculty was never part of our agenda.   But at SLC,  I was told I should have known better since visiting authors reflected on these writing faculty members.

If I had been sagacious and gone to the writing faculty and said, “Hey, what do you think of this author?  Should she be allowed here?”  Would they have told me a reason why not? Would I have seen it as a good reason to deny her? Probably not.  I might be wrong, but I believe Ozick is still a talented, respected author, and students have a right to hear dissenting, educated opinions.  Does this fit with how SLC sells itself as open-minded?  No.

The irony is that I was completely innocent of any of it.  I was even accused of doing so to cause trouble, though I was simply an ignoramus. Causing trouble might have been the intention of the group that petitioned the funding, but I am not even sure of that.   A better reaction might have been for the faculty to let the students hear Ozick, and then hold a chat afterward to educate us on their reactions to her rather than to blackball the woman.   More than likely, that would have been too subject to the community spotlight.  Better to passively censor whatever Ozick might say than openly deny what she does say.

But I got the sense that internal clucking and fission was the nature of that particular faculty dynamic (and student body).  So the SLC experience is completely colored by the intimate, particular group of teachers that are in residence while you might attend, Dear Dreamers.  You could end up with the joy of Dons like Joseph Campbell, one of life’s natural educators, or an angry finger in your face.

Another sly group at work caused yet another conflict for me.   Each term, different faculty members took over the Graduate Fiction Workshop.  At that point I knew nothing of our latest Don, other than there were some students who groused about her taking over. To me, she came across as warm, boisterous, slightly goofy, but loving.  That was my take on her after our first class.

Then I came to my first one-on-one meeting where writers share whatever new ideas we have.  I brought my journal of thoughts and story beginnings, as I might have with previous Dons.  She welcomed me in her roomy office, asked me to sit, and after a moment of polite exchanges asked me what I was working on.  I opened my journal and within minutes she was literally shouting at me and accusing me of incomprehensible things.

This woman I barely knew seemed off her rocker, and I was dumbfounded. My first offense was that my work was hand-written and not neatly typed for her perusal.  I’d never brought typed-up perfect work at a first sit down since we are just getting to know one another, and we were not “turning in work” yet.  I still often write first drafts in cursive rather than typeset.  My second offense was apparently that I had been seen socializing with people whom she regarded as enemies.  I had no idea what she was talking about when she stuck her finger in my face and said heatedly, nearly snarling, “I know about you!  I knew you were trouble from the moment I met you!”

I was startled for she erupted so suddenly and unprovoked. Imagine standing in a grocery store and some stranger suddenly screaming at you and accusing you of unknown offenses.  This is what her behavior felt like to me.

I said, “What?”

My initial response was to glance around for video feed. If the show Punk’d had yet existed, I would have been certain.  She was so filled with vitriol.  No one had ever spoken to me this way, even times when I probably had deserved it.  My second thought was she is confusing me with someone else.  I tried to ask her what she was talking about, “I don’t know what you mean?  I think you think I’m someone else. . .”

She yelled, “Oh, I know you.  I know who you are.  I was warned about you!” I was sitting right next to her, side by side, so she could see my journal and with each sentence, her spittle was landing on my cheeks.

This had happened after the Cynthia Ozick debacle, but before the Jilting jilting.  Yet, neither of those could explain this attack.  Who talks like this? And who was talking about me to her? Whaaat?

Now, I’m thinking, okay she has Alzheimer’s, she’s drunk, she’s insane.  I pleaded, “Ms._____________, I honestly think you’ve got me wrong.”

“No. . .it’s you!  You horrible person.”

Given a natural fight or flight situation, when attacked, I almost always fight.  “You’re crazy, Lady!”

She continued, “Look how disrespectful you are!  Bring me such shit!””  She ruffled my journal pages in my face. “What the hell is this?  NEVER bring me something that is not typed!”

Her face was red and right up in mine, “You will never make it here!  I do not want you in my class.  You’re out!  You’re out of this school!”  I felt like I was in some 1930s movie;  I could hear You’ll never work again in this town! echoing through the walls.

We heard a sharp rap on the wall. This startled us both. Grace Paley, whom I loved, had an office right next door, and I was beet red with embarrassment that she could hear this outrageous confrontation.  Paley had seen me go in as she had welcomed one of her current students into her office.  Was she telling us to quiet down?

I started to defend myself and my decision to bring my journal, but this woman screamed “Get out!  Get out!” I just said, “Holy Shit!” and got up and left her office, she still yelling at me to not come back until I apologized. . . for what, I’m not sure.

I fled in tears and found Linsey Abrams who taught the workshop the previous year, and she let me in her office, astounded and probably worried that I had been physically attacked.  I was in such a panic and crying so hard that I couldn’t speak.  All I could think was that I was going to fail this crazy woman’s class and be drummed out of SLC.

Eventually I learned that there was some group of students who had tried either to get the new Don fired or at least stopped from teaching at the graduate level.  And that she must have had me confused with that group.  I was not yet the sort of person who felt that much power that I might plead with a school board to undermine a faculty member. . .and I also had no idea who she was before she walked into our first class. None of this truth mattered.  I had become her target in that brief, hot moment.

However, the next week in class she acted like nothing had ever happened and smiled and joked with me and the class. And then when I had to return to my one-on-one, she met me at the door, hugged me, (you can imagine how stiff I was) and said, “I’m so glad you came back.  Let’s start over.  Abrams told me you always write drafts by hand. . .” as if THAT were all that had upset her.  As if her reaction to handwritten notes were normal.

Obviously, there was something going on with this woman. Though in her sixties then, she went on for twenty more years of publishing, so I don’t know what it might have been.  She turned out to be a supportive, spirited and interesting teacher though waffling and forgetful.  But the experience marked me, and though I only told my roommates, the story got around.  I think there were students who liked her and thought I was one of those that had undermined her.  There were others who did not like her, and wanted me to report her actions to a higher authority.

Again, the small, intimate style of Sarah Lawrence allowed events that could not and would not occur elsewhere.  Or perhaps the entitlement that goes with being rich allowed this student body to think they had the power to oust their leaders?

I just kept my mouth shut and tried to lie low, which was sad because this teacher, this woman and writer, was worth knowing more deeply; she had accomplished amazing things in her life time, one of which was to start the Women’s Seder, now an international Passover phenomenon.  But whatever political machine that had gotten in her way and caused such rash behavior was too big for me to truly let my guard down again with her.

My mistake, to those of you with dreams of being an SLC graduate, was that I was an outsider in all of these cases or complaints.  And though older than the undergraduates, and world-travelled, I was inexperienced in their mores.

I was not one of the rich kids.  I was not one of the transfers from one of the other ivy league schools or a graduate of expensive private boarding schools whose parents knew people on the SLC board (and knew whom to complain about and to whom to complain).  I was not privy to these behind-the-scenes politics and strings that stained this community of leaders who studied, worshiped and debated in groups outside the school.  Instead, I had come from a system where students and teachers had very clear boundaries and too many moving parts to bother with small issues.

Plus, like I said teaching, being great teachers was not the priority for some of this faculty.  They seemed to be hired based on how they got along with one another, how they fit some ideal.  Not whether they were right for the students.  And perhaps this woman who screamed at me tyrannically should have been retired earlier, but was being protected by her colleagues?  Or maybe the Graduate Fiction Workshop, with its own special baggage, was a tough group to lead so, hey, her colleagues foisted her on us and maybe it was insulting for some students to complain?  Maybe if I had been the person she thought I was, her reaction would have been rightly placed?  I have no idea.

As an outsider who only had two years to become an insider, I was clueless. 

The worst faculty experience, however, came the next year.  I entered an African-American Literature class led by a man of great repute.  I had read and studied a number of celebrated works by African Americans, and I had loved and been inspired by all of them.  As with many courses there, students had to pass interviews to be allowed entrance into the class, and I was excited to be one of the 15 women in the group.  I was one of two white girls “accepted.”  In so many ways this great class taught me much that I later was able to impart to my own students; it allowed me a tenuous grasp of issues that are nearly incomprehensible that I would not have otherwise.

I also learned to keep my mouth shut more than open. The other white girl was an undergraduate from Boston who kept trying to explain how she could relate to the racism and prejudice in the novels because poor Irish kids went through the “same thing” where she was from.  She was too young to understand her ignorance.  And no one in the group had any interest in validating her experiences.

I was feeling proud that I knew enough to sit quietly and absorb.  I now suspect that the whole reason I was there was not because I had anything to offer the group.  I was so open and willing to learn, and the Don decided to teach me not just about the insights in the literature, but a mean lesson.

I owned a bootleg tape of a rare interview with Zora Neale Hurston that a professor from my undergraduate school had given me; (yes, she was African American herself, and it is important to share that here).   I loved how Hurston played with the reporters as she sang old, very bawdy ditties to these uptight, overtly polite male journalists; I proudly shared it with the Don of this SLC course, who seemed as excited as I was when told him I had it.  We listened together in his office, and he asked to borrow so he could make a copy.  I nervously handed over my only tape.  After months, I had to repeatedly ask him to return it, worrying it would be lost.

He did not lose it.  He supposedly shared the copy with a buddy from People magazine. Finally, the Don told me I would never get it back because, “I’m really sorry, but my friend says he doesn’t believe this tape belongs in the hands of a little, white girl.  I wish I could help you. . .but he won’t let you have it back.”

He said this with a smile on his face.  So one professor of color happily wanted to educate me about Hurston, but this man from SLC wanted to educate me about life.

Stunned, Flummoxed, I came home and cried to my roommate, and knew there was no authority I could tell, and nothing I could do about it.  He had my grade in his very subjective hands, and this is when “no grades” on assignments gets iffy.   If he decided to, at the end of the term, fail me, what records did I have that I was performing well previously.

It’s not like I could prove what he had said either, our one-on-ones were private.  And who would have thought to tape all our behind-closed-doors sessions secretly just in case something truly unethical occurred.  Again, his actions underscore what I mean about faculty not necessarily being teachers.  What did he teach me?  Hate?  No, I can see more than that, but his lesson was wrong.

I came to SLC to have that artist’s experience, to enjoy all the things they advertise, talented writers, small classes, intelligent peers, and even the NYC experience. I did get that.  And I will never regret going though some of the teachers had hurt me personally.

As I said, that advertised experience is probably different yearly depending on the group of teachers that swing in and out of Sarah Lawrence College’s gates, and the students who sit next each other.  Which is something else you dreamers should ponder.

Middle class, and below middle class kids/students are distinctly different from the rich kids, the ones who already know how to use the film editing machines because their parents bought them one for their 5th birthday.  Different from the majority whose parents vacation with famous artists, directors and writers; the same famous folks who then sit and discuss at the host’s dinner table the politics of Cynthia Ozick or the injuries behind Cultural Appropriation.  Different from the ones who could host Grace Paley for the weekend,  from the ones who no longer care about seeing the Nutcracker for Christmas because their Daddies have taken them back stage since they were two years old,  different from the ones who reside overlooking Central Park in the same building where Yoko still lives without John, and who look at you blankly because you find that thrilling.

You will not be able to Uber your way into NYC for a party, and must take the train.  You will not be able to drop $1700 for a pair of boots that look just like the ones you are already wearing because they have tassels and yours don’t.  You will not be able to pay a local from Bronxville to type and edit all your journals, essays and stories or an actress to perform in your first student film.   Your clothing from Target will look not so much like Goodwill chic, as well, Target, and calling it Tar-Zhay will simply embarrass the other students for you.

These are not people who are looking to learn from the diversity offered by middle class or poorer students (who are supposedly accepted in order to secure diversity.)  As much as SLC argues for this, the rich majority doesn’t find it intriguing or cool, but droll and annoying.  Afterall, you cannot chip in when they want to literally jet over to Martha’s Vineyard for a lobster roll.

And Dreamers, you will probably not move to Spain upon graduation and run an organic Iberian pig farm, or backpack through China until you come back to start a Yoga pants line for Bergdorf’s, or open a soon-to-be Fortune 500 company offering solar-powered water filtration tanks for third world countries no matter how many of the school’s graduates seem to achieve such between the pages of the school magazine.  Those lofty pursuits cost big start up bucks:  You won’t graduate with a dime to your name after paying the $60K yearly tuition.  Plus, you will have to work your way into the world on your own.  Even with a Sarah Lawrence College degree, you still have a Dad who cannot open career doors for you by rubbing elbows with investors; your Mom still cannot buy you a company. Neither will SLC plot it out for you or hook you up.

But. . .But you will have an education that no one else has.   Your peers will be smart and curious and insightful. And talented.  TALENTED.  TAL-EN-TED. You will sit in classes with future JJ Abrams, Julie Shigakunis, Julie Hesslers and Dani Shapiros-my peers.  Or Alice Walkers, Yoko Onos, Barbara Walters and Carly Simons who came before me. Or Jordan Peele, Brooke Anderson, Adam Goldberg who came after.  You could possibly be mentored by the likes of Grace Paley, Joseph Campbell or Mary Karr all former teachers.  You will experience a learning ideal that strengthens your perspective, opens you up to pushing yourself past the normal limits set by other schools.

You will also have an education to brag about. I’m certain that just the name Sarah Lawrence has opened a number of doors for me, earned me my first faculty teaching position at a State University, (though I “only had” an MFA,) and weirdly made a few folks swoon at cocktail parties.

Understand, Dear Dreamers, that the drive that will open SLC to you is the same drive that will allow you to be successful whether you matriculate there or not.  The SLC experience is one I will cherish forever.  IS that worth $60K a year?  Maybe.  You’ll have to tell me.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the nooks and crannies first!   Just go in knowing that what they sell you is not always there, unless YOU bring it and establish it.

I recall one of my very last group lessons.  Grace Paley had put together a long Saturday workshop for just the Graduate Fiction Program students on short, short stories, her specialty.  She and the group loved my writing I shared.  One of my peers named Annie, who was a year behind me, responded that she wished I had shared more of this sort of work in the other classes.   (Realize that of all the fiction you write only a very small percentage will be presented to class simply because of time constraints.)

I said, “Why? I bring the stuff I am struggling with, the stuff I need help with, not my BEST work.  I’m not here to impress you, but get help.”  She looked surprised.  She sat back and said, “Huh.  Wow.”

My obvious annoyance was truth.  Often in weekly workshops my peer writers were too concerned about being special or even politically correct than on solving their own or your writing struggles. They might want your characters to be more dynamic than real, more feminist than weak, less perpetuating of the human condition, while you might simply be examining reality for a different purpose.

And then later Paley asked those graduating second years to share advice to the first years, sort of like passing batons. I remarked on how whispered complaints over how the student council would not help with the cost of graduation and gowns, among other things, had surfaced to me (on the council).  I said, “You know, I hear whining and finger pointing, but few people are willing to step up or even directly ask; none of you came to the council meetings to vote though you all are welcome. It’s like those people who complain about the president but don’t vote.  Only five dollars of your activity fee comes to the council. Not enough to cover your gowns and boards.  What’s more I’ve experienced people going behind closed doors to make trouble for this teacher or that student.  My advice?  Next year get involved, go to  council, and change things rather than assuming. . .be more open and honest.  Solve, don’t create problems.”

Again, Annie reacted.  She said, in awe, “Keren, this is the first time I really feel I know you. I really respect you for saying this.   And that story was great. I wish I could see more of that. I wish I had time now to get to know you.”  (Disregard that she had not really bothered to try before.)

I said,  “I appreciate that, but one more thing, you all need to try and help writers do what they are trying to do with their work.  Like I said, I bring things I’m struggling with, not the stuff I’m happy with.  And instead of help, I get all this advice on how to make it yours not mine. . .Like Shapiro’s work (which became her first published novel and focused on a troubled, seemingly selfish woman transforming herself).  Her writing honestly is the only stuff right now coming out of our group that is ready to publish.  But you all wanted to insult the main character, the events, change the people over to something you respect, to some other ideal.  THAT’s not DANI’s story.  Next year, try to figure out what your classmates need and give them that, not what you want them to write.”

The others sat there dumbfounded.  I’d found my voice at the last second, maybe because I knew I was leaving and there could be no more blow back.

BUT, Dreamers, learn from me.  If you are lucky enough to be accepted to Sarah Lawrence College, and you choose to embark, Use your voice early on. Bitch openly if a Don steals your property or doesn’t give you clear, written directions, or forces your valid opinions down or screams in your face like she is having a stroke.  Tell off the peers when they are trying to make you them, or are undermining the sanctity of the group.   No matter how tightly held the line of the community pushed you away, push back.  Then you just might get the SLC experience it brags about in those brochures you have been collecting.

Good Luck, and may I see your name as a famous graduate of Sarah Lawrence one day, You black sheep, You.


‘Mayim Balik Shamed for “Victim Shaming,”‘

The headlines read.   It is not okay any longer to suggest that the way a woman dresses (or looks) has anything to do with being sexually harassed. “Sexual harassment is about power.”  Okay.  Yes, let me state up front that anyone who harasses another is exerting their power in some way over another whether sexually harassing or hazing or general bullying.  Definitely about power.  And Balik, who is a neuroscientist, understands the reward centers of the brain better than most of her audience, too, and definitely understands the chemical satisfaction of power raging through the amygdala.

Yeah, But. . .

She also understands sexuality better, as well.  Weinstein was getting off at his power, but he was also sexually aroused.

The problem with shaming Balik is that she is making a point about Hollywood that people want to pretend isn’t true, especially the actresses who get the jobs.   Look at the list of the actresses harassed.  Any Roseanne Barrs?  Any Phyllis Dillers?  Women who look as if they represent a good portion of American, “regular” women?


All of them are “exquisite” on the beauty scale.  Barring our personal preferences for a snaggle tooth or a heavy brow, all of these women meet what neuroscientists have PROVEN we prefer and rate in terms of beautiful.  They are “symmetrical”; they have the open-bright eyes, smooth skin, sharper cheek bones and full lips that denote youth. (Even the handful of actresses still working without those qualities, had them when they started out in the industry: Judy Dench and Shirley MaClaine whose acting chops carried them beyond youth, with rare, oh so rare, luck.)

And their beauty is exactly why they get these get jobs.  Jobs that require them to more often than not use their sexuality across the screen.  Their derrieres and cleavage are on display and often centered in frames without their faces.  Or their faces are close in and personal where their perfect skin is apparent (Can you think of one famous actress making a living with pocked skin like Ray Liotta, Edward James Almos, Mickey Rourke?).  Women’s roles are often filmed with their lips parted and their eyelashes fanning over their come hither eyes, their fingers trailing along the opening of their blouses.

And here is my point, these beauties work in an industry where their sexuality IS the reason they are working.  Yes, they work hard and are good actresses and often even superior actresses.  But they cannot deny that their appearance, their sexuality, is why they are there in the first place.   On screen they have to dress and behave as people simply do not (or are not supposed to) in real life.  Look at the business women in television or movies. Their skirts are so much shorter or tighter than is professional in a work setting.  (That this is causing young people to blur the line and struggle with professional appearance NOW in real life is a post for another day. . .)  The characters’ makeup is so much heavier than people wear .  Their cleavage is much more obvious; even policewomen characters look sexy with buttons opened at breastbone level.

Think of the movie American Hustle. In real life, women were only wearing Amy Adams’ revealing outfits as hookers, dancers or models on magazines covers.  But the actress was required to walk around as if this were normal dress in the 70s.   Even the recent movie,  Deepwater Horizon opens with a sex scene focusing on the “wife’s” body (and in a bit of fair turnaround, Mark Whalberg’s).  Plus, whenever a “real life event” is turned into a movie, can you think of an example where the actress wasn’t far more “attractive” on those neuro-science scales than the real person they were playing?  Erin Brochovich, Leigh Ann Tuohy, Norma Rae, Karen Blixen, even Tina Turner?

And this is the point Balik may have been trying to make.  In an industry where the actresses’ sexual attraction gets her the job, we cannot be surprised that they are then sexually harassed by the man deciding who gets the job.  And though the harrassment should still be shunned and punished, we cannot pretend that their bodies and their skin had nothing to do with it.

And this is the direction the argument SHOULD be going: The industry has gotten so sexualized, overall, that these women are already “meat” before they walk into an audition or a negotiation.  And THAT has to change. Not just in the boardrooms or offices, but on the screens.

I know that those shocked by Mayim Balik’s article are rightly saying that they should be allowed to be as sexy as they want without any boundaries being broken. Yet then in Hollywood at least, isn’t that a ridiculous, twisted game?  “I must turn you with my appearance to get my job, and then allow you to turn on audiences with my package, too . . .but you must respect me as a person.”  That’s off.

Why aren’t they building an argument, instead, against being meat from the moment they enter Hollywood instead of trying to suggest their appearance is irrelevant.



School Marm Ghetto

Image result for San Francisco Bay Area Traffic

San Francisco has returned education to its roots, by attempting to provide “affordable” housing to its educators.   Like the 1800s, when teachers of the plains and western states were required to live in or near the one room school houses, the city is converting an old school into barracks-like apartments for teachers-only to rent. Of course, the people behind this plan think it is a meaningful, maybe even a humane solution.   At what point will they realize that by providing housing, in the same way they provide housing to low-income families in many other cities, they are literally and conceptually ghetto-izing the job of being an educator?

The Golden Gate City is one of the most interesting, attractive cities in our country, with a rich history and cultural landscape; intriguing foods, distinct villages or boroughs, tantalizing vistas all add to define it as an original.  And for years the variety of dwellings has also allowed its citizens to remain inside its boundaries with generations of people  who have called themselves San Franciscans.

But then the tech companies landed. With the money that many of its workers earn, land and buildings have disappeared into their pockets, which then has allowed a competitive market to open up where property costs have sky rocketed. A place where the average worker-nurses, electricians, teachers-could still live is harder and harder to find inside the city.

Add that teachers are notoriously underpaid for their degrees and expertise, especially new teachers, and the city now has a problem on its hands.  Where do you find people to teach your children, when they can’t live within the community?

So make the teachers commute.  Big deal.  (Except this is not true in any other major city to this degree.  Even teachers in Manhattan can live in Manhattan.) Commuting takes away precious after- and before-school time that teachers use to tutor and connect with their students.  It takes away moments of comradery between faculty and administration which is essential to build a strong school family, an hallmark of a “good school”.  It also removes the teacher from the community, which in my experience, is a wonderful part of teaching.  Kids who run into Ms. Sneed or Coach Bowen at the grocery store or the local burger joint feel a stronger sense of pride, respect, and even identity than those who think teachers fold-up into drawers at the end of the night.   Toss in the stress of the extra hours on the road, fighting traffic, and even the cost of gas and wear and tear on the car, and commuting is forcing some teachers to vacate not just the city, but the profession.

Now realize that all educators are paid with money from property taxes, and you’d think the solution was built into the cause of the problem to begin with.  Land values go up, salaries do too.   Right?  Well, not quite. They have both risen since the techies arrived, but not in comparable rates.  The value of property has risen by 40%, but teacher salaries have risen by 15%.  So Ms. Sneed, young teacher, now makes $4000 more a year, hardly enough to keep up with the newer rents, where the average rent is $4200 a month.  (Because, guess what, the cost of everything inside the city limits has risen, too; food, gas, health activities all range between 25% to even 70% more than the rest of the country. )

Enter the politicians.   Recognizing that they were struggling to find educators willing or able to make those commutes, and were limited to a smaller pool of the most-qualified applicants, they made a decision:  “Let’s revamp that old building in town into lofts for teachers. . .”  Yay!

But what they are doing is keeping the educators segregated from the community, physically underscoring that teachers don’t fit in with the very children they teach.  Politicians are also labeling them as people who need to live in “the projects.”

NO matter how cute the floors are or how attractive the landscaping is outside, everyone nearby knows. . .”Those folks living there. . .they are the teachers who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else here.”  And if the residents have kids, their kids will most likely be grouped with other educator’s kids only, much the way kids in the project hang with kids from the project. Teachers living there also seem to hand their independence and privacy over to the city-Managers can come in and monitor, even define, the lifestyles inside the building. . .just as they did over 100 years ago with the young, unmarried women of the 1800s, who lived in the back of the school, and followed a strict code of behavior.

Can you imagine the  uproar if they did the same to any other “degreed” profession?

The worst part about this is that it signifies what the U.S. has been guilty of doing to teachers throughout public schooling-treating us like servants (civil servants, of course) rather than private citizens. We are nearly a class of soldiers, with separate rules of living and now the housing to go with it.

Where’s the Hair?

Image result for hairy chest caveman

Men’s body hair?   I for one don’t understand where it is disappearing to.  Well, the chin, obviously, since hipsters everywhere are trying to impersonate Rip Van Winkle.

I’m beginning to miss body hair in general.  The other day, my youngest son was glancing over my shoulder while I was poking through a magazine.  On one page was an ad for a hair removal product.  The pretty model held an old photo of herself as a pre-teenager.  Her arm used to be covered in black down.  Not too crazy, just the sort that Italian girls might have sported when I was a kid.

Son said, “EWWW. Yuuuuck.”

“Huh?” I replied, as he pointed to what was grossing him out.  “That hair?  So what?”

And here’s the thing: he says, NOT something about her or other girls, but about himself: “I hope my arms don’t ever get like that.”

Well, my beloved kiddo, they MIGHT!

I was expecting him to say something negative about girls, but apparently very few girls even at his young age have any arm hair any more.  Are their parents shaving it off?  Waxing it?  They are not old enough for laser. . .I think.

I find his reaction so very ironic because when he was an infant, one of his self-soothing gestures was to suck his thumb while he gently yanked and smoothed the hair on my arm. . .or his father’s or his grandparents’.  I mean, my arm hair is  a smattering of blonde, or at the very darkest, light ginger growth, but it is graspable.  Oh, the sweet memories of his nursing, while he played with the little hairs on my wrist.

I’m sure there is some deep Freudian something at the root of his pubescent yuck of a hairy arm on himself.  I’m not sure I want to go there.

But more than likely, it is simply modern culture that is destroying his future self-esteem, should he grow up to be as fuzzy as his grandfathers.  Or Mom.

I know the trend of shearing the body to the skin is nothing new on the female side of the genders.  Years ago when I was divorced and had jumped back into the dating pool, I tried the waxing.  My arms suffering first, which bled,  stopped me from trying the wax in a more hairy, more tender region for sure.  In fact, my arm hair became ingrown, once the somewhat curly bits started filling in, causing a rash the likes of smallpox.

I had to go on a first date on one of the hottest days of the year wearing long sleeves. And of course, the date asked me, why the hell are you dressed like that?

Because YOU IDIOTS have decided hair is gross.

Even farther back in time, before the naked pubic bone trend, while I was teaching in a southern, “traditional” school, meaning a place where the men still saw themselves as the lions of the home, we came to a reading passage in a book which mentioned something about hair on a girl’s legs.

A young man shouted out how disgusting that was.  A young lady next to him said, “Lots of women around the world never shave their legs or their armpits.”

“Not their armpits?!!” he griped.  “That’s just plain dirty!”

“So,” I said,  “Really?  Why don’t you shave your armpits then?  Somehow YOURS are nice and clean? And hers,“ pointing at the girl  ”Are dirty?”

“Well. . .yeah!” said the boy.

I said, “HOW?  Don’t men sweat more?  Don’t they have more hair?  If so, how is it cleaner exactly?”

He started turning red.

I continued, “I think you should stand up now and say to all the ladies in class that you are simply a cleaner human being than they are, but that you could be even cleaner.  And then offer to shave your pits.”  He put his head down on the desk to shut me out and said not another word.

The hypocritical thing is that I did shave my pits then.  And I had no intention of stopping and no intention of men ever doing it.

I’ve accepted that this is just how things are.  So much so that a few weeks ago when everyone was up in arms over Sansa Stark being graphically raped by Bolton in Game of Thrones, and more so when R. R.  George Martin stated this was simply realistic to the time period setting, I couldn’t be bothered to ask, “If you are trying to be realistic to a time period then why is Cersei not covered in leg hair, or worse, why does Cersei have a ‘narrow landing strip’ of hair on her pubis.  Pretty modern. . .”

But the bald woman has become so “normal” I stayed out of that argument on misogyny.  I figured it was the actress herself who wouldn’t be caught dead with hairy legs on T.V..

BUT NOW. . .men are joining the changing trend .  And I don’t like it.

I happen to love a hairy chest, arms and legs on my men.  Whether a tiny smattering in that concave area between the pecs, or a thatch from shoulders to naval and below;  Think 1980s Alec Baldwin or Sean Connery? YUM!

I feel badly for men in general, and my sons specifically, that now they are beginning to suffer the grooming demands of a hair-fearing culture.  Sure, I can see the appeal of a slip-and-slide chest that some women crave.  But the vanity and the procedures behind maintaining such is so unappealing.  If it is natural, okay.  If not, don’t go there, Guys

I also feel badly for the young ladies whose mental picture has been so shaped by their culture that they cannot love a downy chest the way I can.  The Black silk that lines my husband’s stomach.  Tingly nirvana, Women!

And I hate that my children may have ANY itch of self-loathing due to the demands of hair-hating women.  My oldest son whose chest is fuzzy blond does pick and pull at it, and has wondered aloud about shaving it.

I cannot tell him that when I was back in the dating pool years ago after his father and I split, I dated a MUCH younger man. To my shock, the guy groomed his privates and shaved his chest. And even as recently as he had done so, I was completely turned off by the mere stubble on his stomach, and the weird crew cut feel of his pubis.  Of course, I guess men are used to that feel from their wives or girlfriends . . .but I’m not going to discuss that with my son.

Not quite.  I simply said, “Not all women want a naked little boy chest.  Some women prefer MEN.  Keep your hair.”

Come on!  If we can shape people into this current baldy viewpoint, let’s reshape them back to the other.

The End of the B Movie! (aka The End of Quality)

Hollywood has always created both masterpieces and schlock. I have never felt that every movie produced needed to be the best possible work ever, though, if you’re going to do it, why not do your best, right? But, fine, there is a niche for cheap crap, or even expensive crap in the theaters; we used to call these B films. And rightfully, everyone involved knew it was a B film before selling or buying it.

Somehow it feels as if the movie industry has no concern, no recognition anymore for this boundary, trying to pass off B flicks as quality, oscar worthy films; it is destroying the joy of crap, for crap’s sake, and the thrill of masterpiece theater. Sure, in the past, a movie might really want to be great and it flopped, but at least you could tell someone was trying. But now there is a laziness, where, you can almost hear the director thinking, “Ah, who cares. It’s got a star. . .why worry about the quality. No one will notice.” (Think LONE RANGER for instance.) Enter ELYSIUM . .old news, but perfect to illustrate my point.

This movie in the ads, looked stellar: Can’t! Wait! Matt Damon? Jody Foster? It MUST be awesome! However the only redeemable element about this mess is how it gave the boys and me loads to discuss (read:criticize) in terms of its many distracting plot wrecks. We bonded as a family over our displeasure. It was neither a good film, or fun B Flick. And, spoiler alert, aside from being extremely derivative, and predictable, and self-righteous, here’s what we else couldn’t ignore in the film:

1. In almost two centuries into the future, The Wealthy escape to a segregated paradise in space because Earth is a polluted, starving hellhole-not just Delhi-Bad, but escape-the-planet bad. But. . .Where is the starvation? If so, how are there tons of people in every nook and cranny, but no dead bodies piling up as history proves there would be? Why does the granny peasant have a cart filled with fat swine, fresh pork on the hoof and no one is paying one lick of attention to her? No one is trying to knock the eighty year old over for the meat. (and how is granny moving the cart?) People are smeared with sweat and grime. . .implying hovels and outhouses, but there is clean running water coming from the taps. . .implying there is still an infrastructure.
2. There are still hospitals on Earth with doctors and nurses. So doctors-the wealthy class in our age- are not going to move to Elysium? Oh, they would be obsolete there. So wait, they don’t make any money on earth? Huh? Do they still have medical schools in this hellhole? Who pays for this? Structure that the plot doesn’t support.
3. the world is in chaos. But there are still many jobs that look suspiciously like the ones now-production, computing, doctoring? So is the real problem smog then? Where are the face masks? Where are the inevitable skin diseases? Oh, wait there’s a kid on crutches. I guess smog causes leg troubles.
They still have personal cars, perhaps souped up jalopies from the present age. But one guy who has an underground network of computers also has a handful of personal spaceships. So either he’s the equivalent of a modern day billionaire with a handful of Rolls Royces, in which case, why isn’t HE on Elysium? Or spaceships are accessible; if so, then why the heck are cars even still around? (And where is the gas secured in all this chaos?)
4. A group of spaceships attempts to smuggle people (dirty, broken, crazed people) into Elysium. Okaaaay? Why? The place looks sort of small. Even with the new “citizen” tattoos, where are these stowaways going to live, work, eat? Or are they hoping to quickly break into a rich house, climb into the tanning-slash-healing bed, get fixed, then hop a ride back home to Earth? It’s a little like someone trying to break into Buckingham Palace to live, and hoping no one will notice.
5. Matt, Our hero, is offered and rejects an amazing variety of life enhancing pills in the beginning, sort of like SOMA from Brave New World. But there is still yearning and distress on Earth? WTF? Are we supposed to assume Elysium is really like a resort that one aspires to instead of a separate society?
6. Our Hero, having been imprisoned many times, at some point decided to go straight, so he could save money to get to Elysium. So in this broken world, a job is more stable and financially rewarding than crime and black market? Isn’t that a little bit of why the wealthy are trying to secure their way of life in the first place: to get away from crime/criminals? How is Our Hero different from them then. . .Is he more kind because he hugs his “criminal friend”? Again, the stability of Earth doesn’t fit the movie’s premise.
7. BIG ISSUE: Robots do many human jobs, like acting as parole officers, flying planes to and from Elysium, being police officers who have legs and hands and minds that are humanoid, BUT our hero has a job screwing nuts, bolts, and pushing buttons on a dangerous radiation-filled assembly line. Weren’t humans replaced by machines on assembly lines back in Ford’s day? Yet they’ve got very human robots who could easily screw in a bolt? Or the rich schmo from Elysium who has to travel to the factory, he can’t give directions from home? From space, Jody can lock down all air travel, and summon a sleeper-agent on Earth, but this guy can’t get a production company in line from space, with or without robots?
8. There is a machine that can revamp not only human tissue, but human (and viral) DNA in mere seconds. But so far these fear-filled wealth mongerors have not come up with an effective form of birth control? What about some handy population control machines? Hey, lady, come walk over here by this sensor. Stand still a minute. Op, there you go. No more babies, for you, little lady! They can’t swing that since that is what ruined earth to begin with? And the wealthy I know are more philanthropic than anyone else I know. Why exactly are these folks so greedy with their magic machine?
9. Power hungry lady-Jody-is willing to risk it all, stage a coup, and murder the president of Elysium. Machines can graft, repair bone and flesh in mere seconds. She gets a fatal wound. Nurse can save her to put her in machine later, and Power woman says, “no, thank-you” and dies? Huh? But why? (I think Jody, the actress, had just had enough and literally said, I’d rather die. . .)
10. WORST of all. . .Premise of film is Rich vs. Poor, Elysium vs, Earth, equality vs. Inequality, Jody vs. Matt. All rising action is along those lines. Final show down is between, not Jody and Matt, but Matt and angry, crazy dude, who was seemingly not right in the head earlier, for reasons unrelated to premise. He’s extra pissed because Matt blew off his face, not because Elysium is elitist, not because he was poor. . .so Matt has to take down not “the power”, but crazy dude. That could have been set in any movie, any time, for any reason- which thereby negates the whole flipping premise. Sure, crazy dude mentions early on that he wants Matt’s brain chip to wield some power, but that never comes up again. Not only does this climactic scene destroy the plot arc the writer tried to set up, it gives us good reason to want an Elysium of our own: to get away from crazy, dudes like him.

And here’s why it annoys me enough to write. How hard would it be to fix these many flaws?

Show people truly starving. Don’t give Matt a real job, or give everyone hellish jobs, like slaves. Do have computer geek but get rid of smuggling ships, or at least show us a few folks who have been able to successfully sneak on. Or not. We can learn about lifesaving machines in some other way. Get rid of any semblance of a regular, albeit dirty, world on Earth. Explain how population control is too expensive for the rich to install;. Elysium is easier. Let computer geek try to steal chip AND ship from rich guy to put Matt on Elysium. Kill off Kruger. Go ahead and save his life in machine. Have Jody kill him in surprise twist. Have Jody strap on (smirk) and get into a fist fight with Matt. Who among us wouldn’t love that scene!

How hard was that? But NO. . .The creators disrespect their audience so much that they cannot be bothered to write a tight, plausible script; They don’t care even when the bullshit is obvious in just about every single scene. I read a horribly written book once where a cop (secretly) shoots and kills a bad guy in the front yard of a mansion, to rescue freaked out damsel in distress. He and the love interest then go inside and have a light lunch. They just go about their business, onto the next plot development. No one else ever notices dead guy. No one ever asks. The dead body just never comes up again. It is still on the front lawn I suppose. Hollywood is more often than not, phoning it in, just like that crappy novel, but expecting us to applaud anyway.

What were Jody and Matt thinking? (The heavy handed social-political statement was so intrusive that even THAT can’t explain why they signed on to this film). Shame on them; but then. . .look at the ratings. . .it’s as if viewers don’t even recognize a B Flick anymore.

So are we then to blame for this overt laziness?

Depression: Too Common to Care

Robin Williams, please forgive me. I am going to inadvertently throw you under the bus. I loved you. I still do. I always will, though sometimes I admit. . .I turned away from you when you’d get manic on talk shows. When I was thirsty for “you”, it was too tough to watch you instead isolate in front of an audience. It is painful now to watch as we, your people, shower you with affection AFTER your darkest hour, and excruciating to see how we are using your death as a platform to discuss the thorns of the depression business.

I say “we” because I am climbing on that platform, too.

People are saying (everywhere) how dismissed it is as a disease. Insidious, destructive, misunderstood, but most of all dismissed. Dismissed because of the supposition that people who suffer from its jaws are mentally frail, maybe even lying. . .at the very least self-involved. We are demanding that more light shine on this disease, and asking that people do not vilify the sufferer.

More light?Is it really any less recognized as a disease than any other?

In terms of advertising, anti-depressant meds take up almost as much air time as headache and arthritis meds.. Bus riders in my city see posters advertising local therapy centers. Schools send home, along with how to notice ADD, documents to help parents/teachers notice depression among preteens, along with the suggestion to “speak with the child’s pediatrician” about these signs. The Golden Gate Bridge literally has a hotline in the middle of the bridge, with signs telling would be leapers to get help.

We do not come across as a nation that closets the topic of depression. If anything, we seem on the capitalistic side of it, perfectly willing to farm the profits of its biological effects, if we could just get all those obviously depressed folks to come in for help.

Therein lies the problem. Diagnosing the illness is often anecdotal, rather than medical. People aren’t sure, or maybe unwilling to see it in themselves. Even Williams in an interview years ago tried to shrug off the implications that he was mentally ill.

So what we really are complaining about isn’t depression being recognized as a disease. Instead, we are upset about how others feel about us and our depression stories.

Do you dislike Mike Douglas because he battles cancer, or Vice President Biden for his heart disease? How about Mary Tyler Moore for Diabetes? I am sure you might have felt pity for them or at least sympathy. But remember Steven Wright’s humor. . .the depressed guy gig, where he uses a flat voice, zero facial affect, and whines? Who wants to be around that?

I had a professor ten years ago who battled severe depression. She was extremely open about it. I felt for her because I suffer from depressive episodes related to PMDD. At least I know that in a few days I won’t want to toss myself off the top of any buildings anymore. I will want to climb out of bed with purpose again. . .

But then. . .I felt like every time Prof. So-and-so took three weeks grading our work, every time she missed a thesis meeting, every time she came late to class. . .her students got a play-by-play of her empty, mentally exhausting weekend. She would be prostrate, tearfully apologetic. But also. . .an eensy bit self-righteous. Who are you students to expect me in my depression to work!?

When I suffered from debilitating morning (read: 24/7) sickness with child two, my students certainly weren’t forgiving. Nonstop vomiting is no good excuse. When my best-friend is hospitalized with complications of her kidney transplant, people expect her work to be finished still. Cancer insurance exists to cover the costs of missing work while one undergoes chemotherapy, implying that no work, equals no pay. Yes, these are recognized diseases, but they come with expectations and not really all that much sympathy. Honestly, my diabetic friend learned long ago people don’t really want to talk about that either.

I, in fact, do not want people to talk to me only about my disability, and their interest is really limited.

So is it that people suffering from depression want more sympathy? More attention? More forgiveness? More sick days? Like I said, it’s not really like ANY disease gains that much acceptance or warmth from others.

But to concede, I know there is stigma. Teachers have to admit (and most do not) if they have ever been treated for depression on their applications. They also know to keep it to themselves if they seek treatment. (You’d better say you were seeking therapy for family counseling and not depression.). Everybody fears a teacher “going postal” at school, right? Infact, even the term “going postal” illustrates the ridicule that depression receives. It’s a term, coined by jokesters, about the worst results of depression. No one says, when a man dies of lung cancer, “He went all carcinogenic on us, man!” Noone mocks it. . .Unless, being depressed, the lung cancer patient shoots out the chemotherapy floor.

I have found that stigma tends to exist around two extremes: the unknown and the questionable common. Extremely rare birth defects, rare forms of cancer, injuries from strange events, like spontaneous bone breakage or flesh eating viruses freak people out. They rubberneck briefly, then disappear. But very common inflictions also make people uncomfortable if there is an “unsavory” or distasteful quality to it. Thus, HIV has stigma, breast cancer does not. Scabies, no stigma, crabs, yes. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome vs. Down’s syndrome. ADD. vs. Depression. One is okay and worth our sympathy. The other is too low to discuss. (Plus, the that is judged seems to have culpability attached to it. Or so, people think.)

So just what’s unsavory about depression really. Where’s the blame?

Frowns? Tears? Constant Criticism? Negative Outlook? Self involvement? Drug or alcohol abuse?


Worse. It’s Death by what we see as selfish choice.

Who are you to leave us hurting? Who are you to choose to leave the rest of us slogging through the daily sludge without you? Depression is so common, almost everyone will suffer from it some point, but we do not all succumb.

It’s the “I walked through ten miles of snow up hill in my bare feet every day to go to school” mentality of the rest of the world that keeps depression dirty.