27 January 2011

"With fragile certainties"

There's an excellent and accurate article right now on Slate.com by Mark Oppenheimer on being a snob. How to define a snob? Let's say, perhaps: someone who has confused an aesthetic for an ethos. And undoubtedly I am a snob, if a self-aware one. (But then it's possible that all snobs are in fact highly self-aware, in that they cannot fail to acknowledge that their tastes are not those of the mainstream -- if their tastes were mainstream they would not be snobs; if they were unaware of this divergence, they would merely be eccentrics and not snobs at all.)

Snobbery as we generally understand it is class-based, but it is not only a phenomenon of the upper class. Any person or subculture acutely concerned with the appearance of authenticity partakes in snobbishness, I think. Snobbishness is always aspirational, but it is fanatical about avoiding the appearance of aspiration. One should have been born with an impeccable set of tastes; all one's choices must appear to emanate from the core of one's being – indeed they should hardly be choices at all, they are simply the natural consequences of one's way of life. This is why snobbery is much easier to pull off for the upper-class: they may have the advantages of not actually having to work very hard and of being tutored in good taste by those within their milieu.

The working-class snob has it harder. She can turn to those subcultures that define themselves in opposition to what one might call the “preppy” strain of snobbishness: punk rock, say, or the thug culture in which the ultimate accessory and badge of authenticity is a gunshot wound. But the bookish and shy are unlikely to successfully pass in such a scene. Instead, one ends up cobbling together an aesthetic from bits of books, movies, magazines, the elite of previous eras, and comes to develop an idiolect of signifiers which may overlap with those of other snobs but never connect one to a larger snob culture. One takes the Pillow Book in which one has scribbled hastily over the years and turns it into doctrine. For the working-class snob, this may resemble the Ten Commandments more than a style guide: without a unified model to aspire to, one works mainly with negative space to create a picture of the appropriate. No, one must not hang a television on a wall, or museum-shop reproductions of famous works of art. One must not wear Uggs or Crocs, or sweatpants, or sea-foam green, or anything with a prominent logo. One walks down every street saying no, no, goodness no, interrupted by the occasional yes, an approving nod in the direction of the object that knows its place, the person who understands how to behave.

Oppenheimer worries about the effects of his snobbishness on his young daughters, and it can certainly be toxic to family life. My childhood years were spent cringing at and railing against the bad taste of my surroundings. There were so many sources of outrage: the plastic bouquets at my father and stepmother's wedding, the enormous “antique,” “distressed,” “Asian” print of a tiger that my mother brought home from Meijer for our living room, the nattering television shows that nobody was really watching but which nobody would ever let me turn off.

Under the tyranny of my taste, over the years my mother has made steps towards snobbishness herself. Her tastes in music, movies and reading material have by this point all been heavily inflected by my own; she is surprised when I do not agree with her, that she can have picked up on the details of my snobbishness without discerning its larger shape. As a teenager, these near-misses irritated me more than if she had wholly ignored my preferences. She was too clearly trying. It ruined the whole thing.

In his essay Oppenheimer mentions, almost offhandedly, “the tragedy of the snob, which is that he needs to think he is grand just to think he is worthwhile.” When love of God or country or money are not enough to shape one's life, other standards are required. The snob knows that, judged on his or her inner qualities alone, she will always be sorely lacking. Better to locate success in the arbitrary, the anti-pragmatic, the obscure. One has so much less competition there, there where the appearance of competition itself is enough to disqualify any competitor. The sovereignty of the snob remains intact.

23 January 2011

Things You Can Do When You're Unemployed

  • Dye your hair a bright color
  • Get in fights (like the kind where you might get a black eye)
  • Eat leisurely lunches
  • Go to museums for free
  • Get arrested
  • Express strange and unpopular views in a public forum
  • Hitchhike
  • Go to the Social Security office to get a new Social Security card because you lost yours
  • Buy groceries when the grocery store is not so crowded

14 January 2011

The Nice Parts

On the eve of my final day of the job that spawned this blog, I feel that I can finally find in it some droplets of affection, however laboriously squeezed from the dense mass of surrounding dread. I've been filling the last few days with words of slightly disingenuous warmth for the place and its residents, so unaccountably nice, saddling me with such heartrending parting gifts as some gorgeous roses and a hideous handbag that smells of chlorine. I know that I will not miss this job. The nice parts of it will be nearly as pleasant in memory as in experience, and the bad parts will, I think, take some minor works of exorcism to lift from me. But I will say this in its favor: it has brought me into closer and more meaningful contact than ever before with people who are truly different from me, and allowed me to like them very, very much.

For instance there is Patty (no, the names aren't real), a guard at a women's prison who has outlived a couple of husbands by now, unassailably tough and radiant with unassuming kindness. There are so many things I could say about Patty. When Barack Obama was elected she took a bus to Washington for the inauguration and came back with two giant black trash bags full of souvenirs – t-shirts, key chains, fake million-dollar bills with Obama's face on it, one of which she gave me. (She tried to give me other things as well.) The first Thanksgiving I was employed there she came downstairs with a whole sweet-potato pie in hand for each of us. Once or twice a week she receives in the mail the “thank you” gifts (address labels, “Indian” crafts) that charities send out to guilt people into paying for them; she tries to send money to them all, and laments when she cannot quite manage it that month.

What is not coming through here is that she is funny. She spends her days shuttling between the inmates on the west side and her elderly, ailing mother in the south suburbs on public transportation and from this material she builds conversations full of humor and totally lacking in self-pity or self-seriousness. Her sister Pris lives in the building too and is more obviously hilarious; you can hear her braying from halfway down the block, and she continues to work blue even upon reaching the echoing lobby. The trick is that she is unfailingly funny and never actually abrasive. It's not clear how she does this.

Pris is huge and compact while her sister seems looser-jointed, more casually assembled, and her demeanor is frankly confrontational when compared to Patty's casual cool. If no one told you, you would not guess them to be sisters before becoming deeply acquainted with the goodness and strength common to each.

There is Mrs. Santos who, more than almost anyone, has indulged my limited Spanish and trusted me to understand hers. She has just a couple words of English: “Hi, honey!” she beams upon entering the office, eyes brimming hugely with good-will and a sort of worry that someone within her gaze may not be entirely happy, her wrinkles alive with an anxiety that seems not wholly unpleasant for her. She has a large family who visit frequently, and they are also very kind, if in a less otherworldly way. Among them are two granddaughters about three or four years old, cousins, one a little sulky and shy and the other flamboyantly sunny. The first day I met them the sunnier one strode into the office behind her grandmother, climbed up on a chair, kicked out her legs and declaimed: “My name is Lulu Modesta!”

And of course there are other wonderful babies. The Carroll girls, a year apart, who need only the prompt “Hello, girls!” to say, in the perfect unison of their slightly froggy voices, “Hiiiiii!” There's Wolfgang, Wolfie for short, who has just recently been transformed from a quiet, highly embarrassable four-year-old who was up for endless games of peek-a-boo into a five-year-old who announces his entry to the building each afternoon with an escalating series of formidable monster noises. He exasperates his saintly mother, Jeanie, who makes beautiful soaps by hand and has shared with me her memories of China, where she grew up: “So dirty! There is dirt everywhere! And just dogs, running around!” In the past year there has been born a new generation of adorable creatures. Now they are just beginning to try to run, having not quite mastered walking yet, or trying out smiles and frowns that gesture towards a real intelligence growing within.

In some ways this job has taught me plenty about human meanness and stupidity. One can take such lessons and use them to recalibrate one's instincts of mistrust or self-preservation, I suppose (though I hope instead to more or less forget them). It's harder for the mind to get a hold on the kind of inexplicable goodness I have also encountered here. Each instance when it comes is apparently sui generis and difficult to schematize. One can only try to preserve a certain attitude towards it, I guess: a standing still before kindness, the mouth slightly open, slightly smiling, for as long as the world will let such peace exist.