J.D. Salinger: A Tribute

Posted in Uncategorized on January 28, 2010 by brigidduffy

I wrote the following piece about J.D. Salinger when I was in high school. It is probably the only piece of high school writing of which I am not entirely embarrassed. In light of Salinger’s recent death, I republish the piece here. I think the voice of a fifteen year old can do better justice to Salinger than anyone at my age.

 

I first encoutered Holden Caulfield at fifteen. I was lonely and silent, wavering feebly in the enormity of life. He was a high school drop out, sidetracked and enraptured by the naiveté of youth. It was love at first read.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye became, in many ways, my bible. My father’s folded red copy became a permanent fixture on my nightstand and a second copy never left my backpack. I reasoned that if the 214 pages depicting Holden’s struggles—adrift in New York City—were always at hand, then ultimately, I would never be alone. At fifteen, I celebrated the novelty of imagination.

Like Holden, I “didn’t want to tell anybody anything.” I was afraid. I was afraid of a disinterested, preoccupied world. Holden warned that we realize, when we start talking, exactly what we don’t want to say. And so I kept quiet. Yet in secret, I, too, asked those same, befuddled, philosophical questions. And no one answered. I took the time in the irrational, ashen hours of the morning to compose my own peace of mind. I, too, opted for getting lost on the sidewalk.

At fifteen, I wanted to help him up, share with him my own fragility, my own indecision. Over time, the distinction between Holden Caulfield and J.D. Salinger blurred—they were one in the same to me. I wanted to give back to them everything they had given to me. It was Salinger who moved me with the allegorical bliss of the field and the infantile horses. With the identity of a child, still lost, still so uncertain, pained with the heartache at the hypocrisy of friends and vying for acceptable. He taught me that it is beautiful to cry out of happiness of I’m that marvelously affected. And it is okay to be “just okay.” Holden Caulfield opened my eyes when I realize, affectionately, that I had an ally.

There is no denying, however, that Holden Caulfield is not exclusively my ally. Throughout the past fifty-two years he has become the voice of adolescent anguish, not only in the wilderness of ‘50s prep-school kids, but for all of America. The Catcher in the Rye appeared in the American Library Association’s annual list of “Outstanding Books for the College Bound” every year from the mid-1950s through the 1990s. After fifty-two years, it is still the second most frequently taught novel in United States’ schools. Sixty million copies have been sold since its publication. I can hardly call Holden Caulfield “my own.”

When anyone else—a parent, a teacher, a friend, a stranger—used to tell me, The Catcher in the Rye is my favorite book,” I grew defensive, even angry. I thought that no one could possibly have a connection with Holden like I did. No one could understand him the way I could. No one would ever identify with his nostalgia, his isolation, his despair like I did. After all, he was my first love.

I have come to realize, however, that almost all teenagers and adults alike recognize Holden as one of their own. The novel speaks to all adolescents who are trying to understand the world and their place in it as they recognize the inadequacies in adult behavior. Holden discovers the compromises we are all forced to make, and, like all of us, he wonders why we are not disturbed about it more than we are. The fact that Salinger’s novel was and still is considered one of the greatest American novels of all time is a testament to human nature’s uncertainty, inhibition, fear, detachment, distrust and indifference. Even the few who claim to dislike the book share the same kind of sensitivity to the world as Holden. Perhaps they do not enjoy the book because Holden’s disappointment rings so true with them. We all despise the seemingly disinterested world. We are all afraid. The preconceived notion that no one else can possibly feel the way “I do” makes the rest of the world seem strange and distant. America’s common love for The Catcher in the Rye serves as a reminder that there is a little bit of Holden Caulfield in all of us.

Salinger does not capture the voice of a particular generation. He is rather the timeless voice of all Americans who feel that they are “falling down, down, down” as Holden describes. Even though Holden Caulfield is older than my grandparents, in my mind, he will forever be my peer. He will forever grow with me as I accept life’s compromises, discover my own weaknesses, sell out and turn gray. Holden Caulfield transcends age. He is the friend of all adolescents and adults alike who have yet to face the phoniness of this “crumby” world. My father is pushing fifty and still claims that he does not know what he wants to be when he grows up. He, like Holden, is still so lost, distrustful of the seemingly inattentive, “phony” adult world. Throughout the past fifty-two years, Holden Caulfield has become the American people’s most beloved confidant.

I have read and re-read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye countless times, and with each reading I want all the more to reach out, to help Holden up, to reveal to him my own vulnerability, my own hesitancy. I am still enraptured by the naiveté of youth—that nostalgia. I am confident I will never lose it. And now and then I still have dreams in bookstores, of making Holden’s acquaintance for the long walk home.

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Underwear Anxiety

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2010 by brigidduffy

January 10, 2010, marked New York City’s 9th Annual “No Pants Subway Ride,” an event organized by “Improv Everywhere.” If you are unfamiliar with the concept, the name is exactly what you might expect. Participants meet in one of six locations throughout the city, descend onto the platform, and, well…take their pants off. There are only two requirements for participation:

1) Willing to take pants off on subway
2) Able to keep a straight face about it

The below video illuminates the jaunt far better than any description I might offer:

Last week a friend and I discussed participating. I will cut to the chase: we both wussed out. We agreed that while we might be brazen enough to wear our underwear in public, there is something especially crude about wearing underwear and shoes and socks. The combination is repulsive. During the conversation, however, my friend made an astute comment:  If aliens came from another planet and observed our behavior, what would they conclude? “So these creatures wear material that covers the lower region of their bodies, and it’s a really big event when they remove this material. They get a kick out of themselves.” When all is said and done, it seems pretty silly.

There is quite a bit of dissent on Improv Everywhere’s “No Pants” forum, however, which suggests that maybe there is more to this whole “underwear” thing than we realize. The idea of an organized “No Pants Subway Ride” is unsettling to many New Yorkers. Grievances  range from, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” to “keep contributing to the ever growing embarrassment you’re turning our city into,” to “It’s really too bad this creative sort of guerilla organization and participation can’t be harnessed to spark civil disobedience. We’re walking around the city in underwear, irony-loving hipsters that we are, while our working-class peers are getting blown up in Afghanistan. There is rather a disconnect from reality with events like this.” Apparently, no pants yields big problems.

I’m going to come out and say it: there is an inexplicable anxiety about underwear. The very mention of it makes certain types of people uncomfortable. And, like many problems, I believe that we have The Bible to blame. In the book of Genesis, God got wind of Adam and Eve’s illicit snacking by sight of their underwear. And the punishment for wearing a few fig leaves as coverings? Let’s revisit Genesis 3, shall we?

“To the woman he said, / I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; / with pain you will give birth to children. / Your desire will be for your husband, / and he will rule over you. / To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, / ‘you must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; / through painful toil you will eat of it / all the days of your life. / It will produce thorns and thistles for you, / and you will eat the plants of the field. / By the sweat of your brow / you will eat your food / until you return to the ground, / since from it you were taken; for dust you are / and to dust you will return.”

I include this extended passage to emphasize exactly what resulted from the world’s first underwear mishap: painful childbirth, the subjugation of women, a life of toil and bad food, and in the end, what do we have to show for it? Nothing. We are returned to dust. If underwear welcomed evil into the world, it is no wonder that it spawns anxiety.

And the anxiety continues to plague us today. As a kid, the height of mortification is to get “pantsed.” Elastic waistbands were the Russian Roulette of Middle School- if you happen to lack a drawstring one day, you better be prepared for a day of degradation. (recall the insulting, “I see London, I see France” taunt). Even before public speaking engagements, the threadbare shred of advice passed down through generations is none other than, “imagine the audience in their underwear.”The implicit message is that no matter how shaken one might be, it cannot equate to the terror of being seen in undergarments.

Quite a comical predicament we’ve inherited. But it gets all the more complicated. For centuries, underwear was always “worn but not seen or spoken of.” But all that changed in 1980, when Brooke Sheilds’ TV ad for Calvin Klein jeans included the famous tagline, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”  Two years later, Calvin Klein took it a step further in erecting a giant billboard in Times Square depicting a model wearing just a pair of white briefs.

Underwear, acknowledged.

His advertising sparked a revolution, and the underwear craze cascaded from there. In the mid-80s, Madonna took to the stage in nothing but lace bustiers and pointy metal bras worn as outerwear. In the nineties, MC Hammer and other rappers wore their pants slung low, revealing the waistbands of their boxers. Suddenly, the nation became comfortable talking about—and showing—their underwear. (Coincidentally, a popular trend emerged last week. Thousands of women’s facebook statuses featured the colors of their bras. While some said that it was to raise awareness for breast cancer, others reportedly did it, “just to confuse boys.” Either way, the fad proves my point).

But just as we became Ok with discussing underwear, a whole new anxiety emerged: too many choices were introduced. For men, the longstanding question has always been, undoubtedly: boxers or briefs. The choice was once a glimpse into men’s souls. Not anymore. Men’s drawers now come in a vexing array of cuts and fabrics. Undies come in a variety of silhouettes (such as boxer, brief, or trunk), rises (such as low, mid or high), fit options (such as relaxed or slim), colors and patterns. And fabrics include not only the traditional woven or knit cotton but also Lycra, Spandex and various “microfiber” synthetics. (And in doing research for this piece, I shamefully learned about Jockey’s 3D-Innovations Seamfree Microfiber undies that have “eight-way stretch” and offer the service of “sculpting and supporting muscular movement” — which sounds suspiciously like a men’s version of the Spanx body-shapers). “We’re doing underwear with all of our energy and all of our creativity,” says Bob Mazzoli, chief creative officer of Calvin Klein Underwear. And it certainly shows.

And I refuse to even get into women’s choices. Victoria’s Secret earns 3.2 Billion dollars in revenue each year by making us believe that we need lace. And sequins. And “ipex racerbacks,” which sounds like a motorbike but is actually a type of underwear.

So where does this leave us? While I’m sure that many people out there feel perfectly comfortable with underwear, there’s no denying that underwear has woven a bizarre story in the fabric of human history. It has taken us centuries to publically acknowledge its existence, but with the liberation of acknowledgment comes dizzying choices. I wonder what Yossarian would say.

The beautiful thing about No Pants Subway Day is that it acknowledges underwear without explicitly acknowledging. It’s 3000 participants shamelessly display their undies without making the underground another runway show. They carry on with their days, reading newspapers, knitting, doing the crossword—they just happen to be wearing underwear while doing so. The display, in effect, demystifies underwear, and that is the first step towards breaking the anxiety that surrounds it.

Underwear, demystified.

Old School Nickelodeon: A Tribute

Posted in Uncategorized on January 7, 2010 by brigidduffy

There are two types of people in this world: Those who had Nickelodeon as a kid, and those who did not.

Those who had Nickelodeon in the late 80s and early 90s were privy to a renaissance of kiddy culture. A celebration of kidness! A rebellion against grownups! The emancipation of slime! In its heyday, Nickelodeon was the Discovery Zone of cable networks.

My heart goes out to those unfortunate souls who did not have cable growing up, not only because they were denied participation in the greatest era of television of all time, but also because they now lack a considerable pocket of knowledge in pop culture—a knowledge that can only be earned by spending some serious time on the orange couch.

Whenever the topic of Old School Nick emerges in conversation, there is always that one ill-fated sucker who cannot identify names like, “Patty Mayonnaise” and “Stu Pickles.” The ill-fated sucker is doomed to sit in silence while the rest of the group reminisces about the lineup of Snick and The Adventures of Pete and Pete. A typical conversation runs like this:

Someone: Hey, remember that show, “The Roundhouse?”
Someone else: Uh, Yeah! Old School Nick was the best!
Another someone else: Hey, Remember Global Guts?
Ill-Fated Sucker:  …

It is at this point in the conversation when the group realizes that the ill-fated sucker is indeed one of the poor souls who has never watched Nickelodeon. The group exchanges a knowing nod and silently recognizes what this means: if the conversation is pursued, this sucker will be ousted. The poor sap gives the group a look that can only be described as deer-in-headlights-meets-Hulk-Hogan-rage. Please, not again. The group has sympathy, but the fact remains: a conversation about Old School Nick cannot be resisted. I have seen conversations run like this time and time again, and every time, you just gotta rehash the Snick lineup. It’s a Pandora’s Box of tv memories.

The conversation usually becomes a mere trivia session—What is that chemical that spilled on Alex Mac? (GC161). What was the name of that big head in Legends of the Hidden Temple? (Olmec). What were Clarrissa’s parents’ names (Janet and Marshall). But what exactly Nickelodeon did for kids often remains unspoken.

As I look at some “kid’s” shows on tv today, I realize how fortunate I was to grow up alongside Doug Funny and Alex Mac. Current Nick shows like “iCarly and “Big Time Rush” have the look and feel of a baby MTV. They are “edgy” and “cool,” but they are not, “kid.” The shows placate to a celebrity-obsessed culture: Carly stars in her own TV Show. The gang in “Big Time Rush” moves to L.A. to become the newest pop sensation. They “hang at the pool and attend late night parties.”  Not surprisingly, Carly’s parents live “overseas,” and only one parent accompanies “The Big Time Rush” gang when they move to Hollywood. While Old School Nick characters persevere to trump authority, current Nick kids effortlessly sidestep it. Why rebel against “Adult Swim” when you can “hang at a Hollywood Pool?”

Clarissa Darling: The ultimate free spirit.

Current Nick shows are not about kids, but little superstars in the making. And the ultimate message to viewers? There’s nothing special about being a kid. You have to be a Jonas Brother. The Current Nick shows demonstrate a bizarre twist on the way childhood was viewed in the Victorian Era: Kids are not kids, but rather “little teens.” The beauty of Old School Nick lies in its simplicity. Alex Mac, Clarissa Darling, Doug Funny, et. al are “average” kids. They worry about how they did on that test. They missed the bus. They wear jeans and T-Shirts.

Yes, Nickelodeon is, “just tv,” after all, but we can’t underestimate the impact it has on kids. Childhood and early adolescence is a time where a kid starts to realize, rather subconsciously, that she is a thing among things. A person with a unique body, personality and traits and talents. She learns proper conduct from studying others. TV personas serve as a blueprint for conduct—a behavioral reference book of sorts. And during a confusing time, Old School Nick gave us some encouraging lessons.

Doug taught us that it’s OK to be just OK. Artie, the Strongest Man in the World, showed us that you can be eccentric and powerful.  Little Pete showed us that it’s beautiful to cry out of happiness if you’re that marvelously affected. Ellen taught us to always ask, “Why?” Clarissa showed us what it is to be a free spirit, Ren and Stimply taught me the concept of “Kitsch.” And Rugrats prepared me for existential angst, as featured below:

Didi: Stu, what are you doing?
Stu: Making chocolate pudding.
Didi: It’s four o’clock in the morning! Why on earth are you making chocolate pudding?
Stu: Because I’ve lost control of my life.

Hi. I’m Brigid Duffy, and I’m still a Nick Kid.

You Are All Weirdos

Posted in Cultural Trends with tags , on January 6, 2010 by brigidduffy

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy got it right, but he failed to top off his aphorism with one final nugget of truth: All families—happy or unhappy—are pretty ridiculous.

We’ve never needed the internet to validate this for us; all we need is a family function. I can recall various instances of family ridiculous throughout the year—my uncle sporting a kilt on Thanksgiving, multiple mullets at the Christmas dinner table, my sister’s “collection” of empty plastic water bottles under her bed. We all have those weirdos in our family, and let’s face it: we’re usually one of those weirdos. Sam the Eagle says it best:

(that little grunt of disgust gets me every time)

Like divorce and Transitional First Grade, (a phrase taken from my own dad), awkward family photos have always been something that remain behind closed doors—until now. There is an upsurge in blogs that celebrate dads in all their short-shorts glory and moms rocking that bouffant. And it appears that we can’t get enough of them. This is a curious phenomenon, considering that many people don’t even have the patience to feign interest in their own family albums.

When I first discovered two of my favorite family album sites, Dad’s in Short Shorts and Awkward Family Photos, my genuine interest in these strangers surprised me.  Why is that dad holding a violin in a wetsuit? Where the hell did that walrus come from? What kind of a situation demands the presence of a riffle and a parrot? These photos were so remarkably real. And ridiculous. Unlike the plethora of “reality” family tv shows out there, many of these photographs capture candid family moments. And you couldn’t script them any better.

But these sites aren’t all mockery. Sites such as My Parents Were Awesome and My Mom, The Style Icon  illustrate that some people actually—gasp—admire the generation that precedes them. The range of these websites is an accurate reflection of how we all feel about our family members at times- usually somewhere around three parts humiliation, one part pride. Margot Nason, editor of the trend forecasting newsletter Trend Central says, “Similar to the way that young people look to celebrities as style icons, more people are looking to these attainable vintage fashions from their parents and there is a growing population of people who prefer these classic looks.” I’m not wholly convinced that the world needs to revisit three-inch cutoff shorts. I’m also not wholly convinced that the new generation is looking for an excuse to wear three-inch cutoff shorts. But fashion aside, these blogs are not so much a celebration of mom and dad’s style. Rather, they server as a reassurance that our parents were really people once too. And maybe it isn’t all bad that we have their genes. Ok, maybe dad didn’t look so bad in that bow tie. And maybe mom really rocked the flowing hair and elbow-length gloves.

As a whole, these family photographs expose an inexplicable sense of “momness,” “dadness,” “bratty little sisterness,” “grandpaness” etc. And the beauty is, they aren’t characatures of the real thing- they are the real thing. As different as our families may be, all of us play some of these roles, and that in itself makes family photos so intriguing. They may not depict the totality of family experience, but it certainly reminds us that our own families might not be as strange as we think.

The Jersey Shore and the Death of Postmodernism

Posted in Philosophy on January 5, 2010 by brigidduffy

I admit it. I rang in the new decade with JWoww, Mike “The Situation,” Pauly D, Ronnie, Sammi, Vinny and of course, Snooki. Not a proud start to 2010. Perhaps I’m to blame for tuning into MTV in the first place, but once the cast of The Jersey Shore enters my living room, I am convinced that my remote suddenly “doesn’t work.” The next 59 minutes of my life is destined to feature binge drinking, flashes of crotch, fake tan, even faker boobs, steroids and haphazard nicknames. (And in that time, I fantasize that my Jersey Shore nickname would be B-Scream).

I am only one of 2.5 million viewers hooked on The Jersey Shore. Together, we are personally invested in Snooki’s well being. We want Ronnie and Sammi’s fledgling romance to survive. Maybe Pauly D will DJ our future kids’ 13th birthday parties? Will “The Situation” lead the rest of the cast in a core workout? Our hearts go out to “the grenade.”

All of these thoughts and outpourings of emotion spur one question: Why? Why does the drama surrounding these morons dominate our attention? Isn’t the real-world drama of two wars, a financial collapse, and an epidemic enough to satisfy even the most dramatic of drama queens? As we start a new decade, it’s only fitting that we ask the question: where the hell are we headed?

I only recently discovered Alan Kirby’s 2006 article, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” which was later expanded into the book Digimodernism, published last year. In his article, Kirby posits that our current, postmodern era is “dead.” In its place comes “a new paradigm of authority and knowledge formed under the pressure of new technologies and contemporary social forces” (a la The Jersey Shore). In light of The Jersey Shore’s popularity, I think he’s on to something here.

Before jumping into “post-postmodernism,” or, what Alan calls, “pseudo-modernism,” it’s helpful to revisit postmodernism. Postmodernism, like modernism and romanticism before it, placed supreme importance on the author, even when the author chose to indict or pretend to abolish him or herself. Whether you’re a fan of Great Expectations or Waiting for Godot, the dominant intellectual framework remains the same: authors write, and readers read. The curtain dividing creator and spectator is firmly drawn.

Postmodernism emphasizes the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge. In other words, we may do our best to convey what we mean, but what we intend to say will inevitably vary from what we actually say. The very fabric of our language is limiting. The philosopher Jacques Derrida, a personal favorite of mine, invented a term to describe this “language problem”: differance. Differance is the combination of the French verbs, “to differ” and “to defer.” The word suggests that over time, words come to assume new or varying meanings, and language itself is unstable.

In lieu of lamenting language’s limitations, many postmodern writers and thinkers celebrate this conundrum. This “celebration” of sorts is often expressed in postmodern art with an ironic self-awareness. Postmodern literature often, very playfully, pokes fun at the quest to find meaning. Think Beckett and Vonnegut.

The best example of postmodern TV that comes to mind is Seinfeld. “The show about nothing” is driven by superficial conduct and characters with strange dispositions. Most episodes revolve around the characters becoming involved in the lives of others, to typically disastrous results. Regardless of the damage they cause, however, they never gain anything from the experience and continue to be selfish, egocentric people. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Seinfeld, with its myriad allusions, jabs, and ironic plot twists, is one smart show. (And it is a “show” in the strictest definition of the word- the actors perform in front of us, and we viewers sit back and chuckle).

But alas, Seinfeld is so 1990s, and with the death of Seinfeld comes a new era: pseudo-modernism. Kirby notes that while all other past eras fetishized the author, the culture we have now “fetishizes the recipient of the text to the degree that they become a partial or whole author of it.” By definition, our cultural products cannot and do not exist unless the individual intervenes physically in them. The Catcher in the Rye will exist materially whether anyone reads it or not. Once Salinger had finished writing it and the publisher released it into the world, its “material textuality” was completed. Its meaning may be up for grabs, but its very existence is determined by the authors and publishers. Kirby notes that “reality” shows such as Big Brother or American Idol, on the other hand, would not exist if it weren’t for the viewer:

“Big Brother would not exist materially if nobody phoned up to vote its contestants off. Voting is thus part of the material textuality of the program – the telephoning viewers write the programmed themselves. If it were not possible for viewers to write sections of Big Brother, it would then uncannily resemble an Andy Warhol film: neurotic, youthful exhibitionists inertly bitching and talking aimlessly in rooms for hour after hour. This is to say, what makes Big Brother what it is, is the viewer’s act of phoning in.”

Kirby notes that this is a far more intense engagement with the cultural process than anything literature can offer, and gives the undeniable sense (or illusion) of the individual controlling, managing, running, making up his/her involvement with the cultural product. The viewer herself plays the part of a deus ex machina– swooping in from above to determine the outcome of the spectacle at hand. Likewise, internet pages are not “authored” in the sense that anyone knows who wrote them, or cares. The majority either require the individual to make them work (like Hopstop, for instance) or permit the user to add them, (like Wikipedia), or through feedback on media websites. In all cases, it is intrinsic to pseudo-modernism that one can easily create the pages herself. (Like a blog! How’s that for a little postmodern irony?).

While there’s no denying that our intellectual framework has transformed the way in which we interact with content, the question remains: what content? As our framework expands, our culture itself grows vapid. Kirby notes that whereas postmodernism favored the ironic, the knowing and the playful, with their allusions to knowledge, history and ambivalence, pseudo-modernism’s typical intellectual states are ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety. And it has crept “into every aspect of contemporary life; from a general fear of social breakdown and identity loss, to a deep unease about diet and health; from anguish about the destructiveness of climate change, to the effects of a new personal ineptitude and helplessness.” We can find TV programs and countless websites about how to lose weight, raise children, make friends, clean your home, and fry an egg. We pseudo-modernists are wasting time interacting, commenting, networking, clicking and tweeting about knowledge that was once considered intuitive or mere common sense. We click just to click.

While Seinfeld is a smart show about nothing, The Jersey Shore is a dumb show about everything. It is a clever ruse: The dramatic bar fights, the punches, the sexcapades. All of these events culminate into a feeling of being part of something pivotal, until, of course the hour is over and we retreat to another “reality” show. But pseudo-modernism and post-modernism share one thing in common: they appeal to human being’s desire to be in on the joke. While the postmodernist will never cease to enjoy a subtle illusion to Dostoevsky because getting the illusion it makes her, “feel smart,” the pseudo-modernist will persist in watching The Jersey Shore because, hey, “I’m not that dumb” In an age filled with anxiety, the cast of The Jersey Shore reminds us of what we are not: them. We are at once participants and mere spectators- invested in the drama, but distant enough to look down on those involved. We are “in on the joke” precisely because we aren’t them. And we aren’t them, together.

In the words of a despairing Snooki, “Me, I’m on the outcast.”