iPhone cover, Oak Park Mall, Overland Park, KS
My parents left the South for good in the mid-1950s, having grown up, met, and married in Georgia, then having followed my father's education and work to Tennessee, where my older brother was born, then heading West and ultimately North for the rest of their lives. We drove from Illinois down to Georgia almost every summer when I was a child to visit family (only much later as an adult did I realize that most Yankee snowbirds only head South in the winter).
I remember seeing, in the 1970s, little roadside tourist tchotcke shacks along the small two lane highway, starting somewhere around Tennessee, if memory serves. We never stopped at these places, which looked like a strong wind would blow them down. But from the car you could see their wares proudly displayed, including the ubiquitous confederate flag beach towels that flapped on makeshift clotheslines. Those towels felt like the totem of a border crossing to me: they marked your entry into The South. My folks certainly had enough connection to the confederate past either to feel shame or closeted pride about (my great great grandfather was a lieutenant in the confederacy who survived to go home and become the mayor of the town my father was born in, along with baseball legend, Ty Cobb). But they never talked about that past with us, and they never ever had or displayed any images of the confederate flag. Those beach towels were meant for so-called "redneck," lower class whites I suspect. And my parents had grown up somewhat solidly (despite the intervention of the Great Depression) middle class. But I don't mean to sell my parents short; while it's perhaps impossible to avoid imbibing raced thinking growing up in the US, my parents did a pretty good job of keeping us open minded, and we all had diverse friends growing up. My father sometimes felt a post-civil rights era defensiveness about slams against the South (he used to say he found Boston more segregated than anything he had seen back home after we lived there in the early 1960s). But my parents--and especially my liberal mother-- fostered pro-civil rights values in us.
It's been awhile since I've seen the confederate flag used to adorn an object openly for sale, but in the above photo my husband holds an iPhone cover we saw in a mall kiosk in Kansas this week. It was the sole one, sandwiched in between the rhinestone encrusted ones, and polka dotted ones, and brightly colored ones. To many folks, that flag is a US swastika and should be banned. And I wouldn't argue against that approach. Clearly States should be forbidden from displaying a flag with the confederate flag in it. But I take a more skeptical "free speech" approach when considering an average person displaying it. However wrongheaded and ahistorical it may be, I think the flag is sometimes wielded by white Southerners as a relatively amorphous sign of (somewhat defensive) "Pro-South" sentiment. That is, not as "yay, slavery and genocidal racism!" but more as a sign that has come to mean the South qua the South. Context is clearly important in reading the deployment of a sign. But maybe the sentiment at stake in displaying the confederate flage truly is a "Pro WHITE South" sentiment. Which is why I could never fully defend the flag as "free speech" rather than hate speech.
So how to read the odd conflation of this cover for an expensive, highly sophisticated phone, with global reach both in its manufacture and renown, and a shamed, redneck-identified, burlap sack of a symbol? I was shocked to see it innocently nestled in an innocuous mall kiosk. In part, it made me worry about this place my husband has moved to, where I now spend half my time. The demographics skew heavily white, and the political climate is scary conservative: KS is one of those states that tried to keep President Obama off the reelection ballot in 2012, using the "Birther" smear that he wasn't born in America (which is pretty clearly code for "he ain't white") While a private citizen filed the complaint, KS Secretary of State Kobach said: "“I don’t think it’s a frivolous objection. I do think the factual record could be supplemented.” That's enough context to make me shudder when I see a piece of plastic for sale with a confederate flag on it.
Scribner's Original Cover
One of the dubious pleasures of aging is that you get to watch the return of (purportedly unique) cultural trends and their attendant hype. I saw the last hoopla-ed (and maligned) film version of "The Great Gatsby" in 1974, and today I saw the similarly hoopla-ed (and maligned) Baz Luhrmann version.Paramount Pictures, 1974
Aside from the fact that 'Gatsby" has long been required reading for any American who undergoes institutionalized education, it was always my text. I had read it 5 times by the age of 22, and revisited it at least once again. There's some truth to Kathryn Shulz's provocative trashing of the book in New York Magazine. There is a kind of priggish moralism on display (though part of Fitzgerald's point is to show how Midwesterner Carraway is forced to reassess that type of moralism), and yes, a shallowness. But I read and loved the book as poetry. (To wit, Fitzgerald's description of Gatsby & Daisy's first kiss: "he wed his unutterable vision to her perishable breath.") When I saw the Elevator Repair Service theatrical version, "Gatz," in which they read the entire book over a 6 hour performance, I was surprised at how much of it I remembered by heart. And I was surprised that the gorgeous language of the novel could be made plausible again, as it staged the characters' actions.
I wanted to be Fitzgerald when I was a teenager: a Midwesterner who headed East, writing and drinking his way to Europe, madness unavoidably at his heels. More than the flapper dress, I loved the white flannel suit, the Leyendecker Arrow collar ads which I collected images of from old magazines. The first novel I began at 16 (and predictably abandoned) took place in the 1920s, with girls jumping into fountains, etc. Write what you know, they say; and for literature, the Lost Generation was what I knew.
So when the 1974 version came out, I was ecstatic, especially since I had a mad crush on Robert Redford (who had replaced Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable in my affections, before being subsequently replaced by Jack Nicholson). My stern father, normally a stickler for abiding by the movie rating codes, graciously agreed to take me to see it since it was rated R and I was underage. I remember being swoony over Redford in the pink suit, but I think the movie disappointed me ultimately, as all movies based on books do. It simply couldn't match the poetic suggestion of written language. (And I didn't get Mia Farrow, since I hadn't seen "Rosemary's Baby" yet). I was only 13, but bookish enough to realize that I had given my father a Freudian scare when, at the sight of Redford's profile on the screen, I leaned over and said "he looks like you." (His respons: "don't say that." ) And like the abounding Brooks Brothers and Tiffany's tie-in ads for the current Gatsby, there were tie in-ads with art deco-esque pictures of Redford and Farrow for Ballantine's Scotch which I clipped and kept, and a cover story in Time magazine.Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Production (2013)
20s images floated around in the 70s more generally. Cloche hats returned; you could get t-shirts printed with images of flapper girls and Betty Boop. And 1974, with its psychic devastation of prolonged war, its economic confusion of inflation, stag-flation, expensive fossil fuel, etc. (the audience gasped when Redford-Gatsby gets his gas bill at the Ash Heaps pumps: 10 cents)--resonates with 2013. Perhaps times like these crave their Gatsby--survivor of the Great War and indefatigable striver; crave the re-rehashing of the bittersweet narrative of the, you know, "American Dream."
So what of Baz Luhrmann's iteration? When I first saw the trailer last December, I felt a proprietary shudder. THIS is what is to be made of the American ur-text: an impossibly shiny, special effect-studded musical (in spirit, if not in actuality)? It looked too bright to me. The best part of Maureen Dowd's recent (and somewhat unexpected) column on the film was her quote from New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier who astutely noted the the problem with “Gatsby” movies, “is that they look like they were made by Gatsby. The trick is to make a Gatsby movie that couldn’t have been made by Gatsby — an unglossy portrait of gloss.” But Luhrmann announces this pitfall by embracing it upfront: he opens the film with a black and white, silent movie-looking version of the gold deco-framed titles, with the initials "JG" liberally inscribed throughout, suggesting a production of Gatsby, by Gatsby. What follows isn't completely uncritical of Gatsby, but the film lends its cinematic persuasions to Gatsby's wizardry of self-construction. Gatsby's legendary first appearance at his own party is unabashedly announced by fireworks, which frame his wry smile. The movie simultaneously frames the story as clearly textual: Nick Carraway is shown typing the novel, ostensibly for therapeutic purposes as he recovers from witnessing Gatsby's dream turn to nightmare in a sanitarium. (While this framing device feels a bit creaky, metaphorically, it's actually quite rich: Nick, our everyman, our naive Virgil to Gatsby's inferno, goes to rehab to get over his (and, by extension, our) American Dream hangover).
The sanitarium, like all the exteriors in the film, is clearly computer-generated. While these constructed exteriors lack the suggestive grace of Hitchcock's beloved mat-drawn backdrops and soundstage set exteriors, they function similarly: to emphasize the constructed, indeed Disney-cartoonish nature of Gatsby's world. And not just Gatsby's world, but also Nick's version of New York City, with its rocket-speed motorcars and utopic skyline. I watched the regular version, but this is one of the few movies I've seen that made me wish I had seen the 3-D version instead, in part to see the digital towers of Gatsby's Xanadu fully "real"ized.
Race and racism is key to the original text of "The Great Gatsby," both condemned by Fitzgerald (e.g. in Tom Buchanan's embrace of scare narratives of the rise of "the colored empire") and performed by Fitzgerald (e.g. the caricatured language in the description of a car carrying African-Americans across the bridge to NYC). Luhrmann's version makes some interesting choices in this regard, for example in casting a Meyer Wolfshiem so transgressively Jewish that he is in fact Indian (played by legendary heartthrob of Indian cinema, Amitab Bachan). Using the Jay-Z soundtrack, which mines hip hop narratives of the nouveau riche to celebrate Gatsby, including Beyonce re-mixes a la Josephine Baker is another interesting choice. But Luhrmann misses the opportunity to expand the vision when he keeps Gatsby's parties lily white (but for servants and the jazz band). It would have been masterful and completely consistent with the book to people Gatsby's parties with a truly diverse crowd, but for some reason Luhrmann sticks to the formula of lending black "cool" to whites through the soundtrack.
Ultimately, the movie is surprisingly literary. Much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the novel. And while the device of Nick writing the film's story as we watch it unfold is a bit gimmicky, especially when occasional lines of text appear on the screen, we are repeatedly reminded that this is a story that is being made up. Even when a line from the book isn't used--like the purpleish prose of Gatsby's kiss quoted above--it is suggested in the behavior of the characters, a kind of insider's nudge to the Gatsby obsessive. What rather successfully and entertainingly emerges from this mix of textual faithfulness and Disneyfication is a recognition of the essentially constructed fantasy that is Gatsby and his role as skipper of the (not so) good ship, The American Dream.
George Jones on my iPhone
While I had Southern parents, I didn't grow up with George Jones. My parents didn't listen to country music as far as I heard. The only real
Southern music traditions they brought into the house were my father's love of Dixieland jazz and the hymns my mother used to sing at the stand up piano we had for most of my early childhood (though it was the act of her singing hymns in the living room that probably felt more Southern to me than the hymns themselves, which were Methodist). Growing up in a Midwestern college town with literary aspirations, I avoided country music. It seemed hick and corny to me, something my farmer's sons and daughters schoolmates must listen to on their tractors and combines. I felt surrounded by "countryness" in those days, and longed to be on the east coast or in a bustling city. I listened to old timey crooners in my early teenage years--Julie London, early Barbra Streisand covers of jazz standards, Nat King Cole. And later Billie Holiday, whose records I used to play at night to lull me to sleep.
George Jones found me in my late 20s, when I was living in upstate NY. I had been invited to some friends' party in the snowy surrounding countryside. They asked if I could pick up another one of their friends who didn't have a car. I was glad to as I was an uneasy driver. It turned out the person they wanted me to pick up was a man I'd had a crush on for years. He was from rural Kansas, had a wheat shock of hair which waved above huge blue eyes and a cartoon nose, a facial flaw that made him seem all the more handsome. He had a genuine twang and seemed to always be laughing at some private joke, which maybe had you at its center. We headed out to the party and played nice, tried to act like strangers, but in our small town we knew a lot about each other already without having met. I don't really remember the party, but I do remember we took off early and headed back to town. He invited me up for a drink, and I said yes, floating in the surreal feeling of unspoken dreams answered.
For the next few hours, we sat in the dark, our feet gingerly propped on the open door of the electric stove, its red glowing heat element a makeshift fire, while George Jones played on the boombox. "The Grand Tour" was my favorite that night, and remains so. The elaborate domestic narrative; the impossibly smooth, agile, yet wiry voice of Jones--able to work more syllables into a word than anyone. Later I would discover his early scratchy recordings where he sounds all nasal cavity and Hank Williams (e.g. "Why Baby Why?"), the consummate heartbroke hillbilly. Those early recordings are beautiful in their own austere way. But the peak career recordings of "Tender Years," "From the Window Up Above," "Take Me" etc. most transported me. When I say his name, my voice lapses into an echo of my mother's Georgia accent. (And I may be the only person on Earth who retains a copy of his autobiography). Has ever a man sung pain as openly as George Jones? Not the angry broken heart of rockers, but the self-abasing lament of a self-acknowledged sucker. A well meaning but beer-soaked loser. Hank Williams always seems to have a tongue more fully in cheek about lovelorn matters (e.g. "Move it on Over") or a more purely nihilistic kind of loneliness ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), but Jones' suffering always feels right here on earth, the next bar stool over. Self-pity carved into a gorgeous-throated tool by that elegant twang.
My relationship with the Kansas boy never worked out; his attachment to Jones perhaps should have been a clue to his own broken nature (the NY Times obit devotes almost 3 inches to Jones' addictions and wild days. The trouble started early: he was born with a broken arm). But George Jones has stayed in my life ever since. When I got the NY Times alert on my phone today, I was sad to see Jones was dead. But I was happy to see the Times at least knew his passing was well worth a news alert.
When I first visited New York City as a teenager in the mid-1970s, one of the things that fascinated me was the street food. I think I had my first knish out of a street vendor's dubiously hygienic steam drawer. (And maybe my first Yoo-Hoo). Street food seemed at once sophisticated and practical to me--how romantic to grab a bite on the streets/heartbeat of NYC; how impossibly convenient to get lunch in under a minute.
Chicago is not a street food kind of town, in part due to city regulations, but more recently, food trucks have been allowed to operate and have been embraced pretty enthusiastically. As I was on the bus headed downtown a couple of weeks ago, I spied the signature silver bullet-like "Tamale Spaceship." Out of a barely adorned, utilitarian looking truck, they serve the kind of food that makes you walk that extra mile, so I jumped off the bus 2 stops early. My pick is typically the simple rajas con queso. The guys are tolerant of my pidgin Spanish; I remain their "amiga" regardless. I'm always conscious of having a great city moment when walking away from the Spaceship with a bag of hot tamals.
Though we've still a week to go until the month T.S. Eliot famously dubbed "the cruelest," March has been pretty darn mean already. The winter is, albeit not as bad as it could be, clinging with a bit of a vengeance, having taken a holiday last year. Today was brisk and cold, with a bracing wind and spitting snow.
Such was the backdrop in Chicago's Federal Plaza for a rally in support of marriage equality, on the eve of Supreme Court arguments on the Prop. 8 same sex marriage case, and 2 days before oral arguments on a DOMA case (the backstory for this particular DOMA case can be seen in the documentary, Edie & Thea.)
I stopped by the rally early, and immediately came across Violet, her brother and Mom. I normally feel a little queasy about seeing kids holding signs at political events, but Violet--and her sign--were pretty irresistible. She cut out pictures of pretty bride ladies and put them into marrying couples. Her collage reminds me a little bit of a scrapbook I kept as a kid which consisted mostly of my cutting out pictures of various objects that I liked (say, table lamps) and pasting them in. Only Violet's is much girlier (and um political). Anyway, she was nice enough to let me take her picture (and you can just make out her brother behind her with his boy version).
The NYTimes published a great and easy-to-read guide to the possible paths SCOTUS could take on these cases. I'm no expert courtwatcher, but I'm betting that they'll take the most politically neutral and limited path possible, at least on the Prop 8 case. (You can hear the oral arguments on the SCOTUS website this Friday, apparently) But it feels like it's just a matter of time now until sex isn't a barrier to marriage. I teach about marriage, and I long for the day when I can cover same sex marriage in a sentence rather than a convoluted, extended lecture that requires a patchwork map. I know that we'll look back on this time and view restrictions on same sex marriage as simple prejudice, much as we look back on racial restrictions on marriage. Odd to be living in that knowledge.
A couple of activists spoke before I scurried home, one of them a woman who came out as a lesbian at Woodstock in 1969. She spoke about the married-like lives of so many same-sex couples she knew. And while I usually hate the narratives of "we're paying taxes so we deserve X," there was something very compelling about her taking this approach to same sex marriage: we're paying the Sup Ct justices, we're fighting in the military and we can't marry, can't rely on shared property rights, etc. Nothing like a normative argument wielded by a non-normative voice.
Weddings pretty much always bring a tear to my eye, and today the wedding talk--the aspiration to union and commitment, with all its flawed human yearning for perfection--also brought a tear to the eye.
I don't expect much from this Court, but I left the rally feeling alive with hope; bubbly with color and humor from the high spirits and occasional quips; invigorated by the human, petitioning congress. Married to everyone.