Calling all Theater companies and performers!

Open Call to Theater companies, performers, researchers:
I would like to hear other voices besides my own on this blog. If you'd like to write about your TLP experiences here, e-mail them to me and I'll put them up.
Topics can include dramaturgy to staging to personal responses to the play. Anything goes!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Big Gay Jim's Bigger, Gayer Blog

One of Matt Shepard's friends, Jim, still livesthere and runs a personal blog.  His blog's name makes me crack a smile every time I see it:  "Big Gay Jim's Bigger, Gayer blog."   As you can tell by the photo on the right, he was an Angel Action angel, and he's been deeply, deeply involved in Wyoming and GLBT activism since then.

I barely knew "Big Gay Jim" in college-- he was actually my boss at one point-- but he has about the quirkiest dang sense of humor of anyone I've ever met.  But that's beside the point.  His blog has some great first-hand stories about what he's been up to since 1998.

But it's a personal blog, y'all.  If you don't like personal blogs, it's probably not your cup of tea.  But he has a great perspective on the GLBT community in Wyoming and how it's been developing over the last ten years.  If you want a quick link to the relevant posts from the 10th anniversary of Shepard's death, just go through UW's online archive of Shepard materials, permanently linked and archived here.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Laramie and Tectonic's Codes and Power

So, as a Christian who studies medieval literature, it's no surprise that I just love the writings of CS Lewis.    Sure, he was a bit of a stodge and didn't "get" how women worked until he was in his late fifties-- but for a conservative, stuffy old Oxford dean, he doesn't get enough credit for taking on and dismantling the linguistic codes of oppression of his own day.

For instance, in the sci-fi book Out of the Silent Planet, he basically takes on the entire linguistic power structure of white imperialism and rips it to shreds.  In the book, an interplanetary explorer named Weston tries to justify his attempted takeover of the planet Mars (which is a silly, pathetic attempt) in the name of white human imperialism.  This is how Weston justifies his murder of a sentient being (called a hnau in Martian) to the ruler of Mars:
Your tribal life with its stone age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science, medicine and law, our armies…  Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. (85)
Weston's adversary Ransom has to translate all this colonial-ese into Martian so that everybody can understand.  Here's how he does it: 
He says that, among you, all the hnau of one kind live together and the hrossa have spears like those we used a long time ago and your huts are small and round and your boats small and light and you only have one ruler. He says it is different with us. He says we know much. There is a thing happens in our world when the body of a living creature feels pains and becomes weak, and he says we sometimes know how to stop it. He says we have very many bent people and we kill them and shut them in huts. He says that we have many ways for the hnau of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it… Because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people. (135-6).
 Oppression sounds completely different when you strip it of all the linguistic codes and speak it plainly, doesn't it?  The little linguistic codes of Weston's set about survival of the fittest and right to supersede (and elsewhere, the white man's burden) really are just a power play.  They separate the 'us' (that is, the elites) from the 'them' and make that outsider vulnerable to violence.  And Lewis' alter-ego Ransom, from his position of the Martian convert, cannot translate their nonsense into sense.  As the person with a foot in both societies, all he can do is expose Weston's brutality for what it really is. 

I hope you can see why this interests me.  Sometimes the little cliques and social boundaries we set up (which Lewis called "Inner Rings") only exist to render others powerless.  Others have are much more well-intentioned but eventually lead to the same thing, and language is nearly always one of the principal tools people use to do it. 

So, do Laramie residents have language codes to build barriers between themselves and who they have deemed outsiders?  Of course they do.  Everybody does to some extent.   But so does Tectonic Theater, as it turns out, and that's what I'd like to look at today-- how such languages of belonging and exclusion can be exposed for what they are, and who gets the benefit and who suffers the consequences.  

Friday, July 23, 2010

A short primer of Academic code

So, all this talk about code switching has got me thinking...  what are the verbal and non-verbal codes of the humanities?

I mean, I know pretty clearly what things make a person's speech "western" or "conservative" or "evangelical" (which has a vocabulary entirely its own).   But, what about the world I spend most of my time in anymore-- the humanities?  What codes do we use here?   So, I've just been listening to people talk for the last couple days to see what short-hand people in my environment use in everyday speech.  What I found is pretty interesting, and highly amusing in a weird sort of way.

Okay, so here are some words I've heard used to code disapproval or rejection:

Fox News / Glenn Beck/Bill O'Reilley
black-and-white thinking; binary oppositions
bumper sticker logic/sloganeering
speaking in soundbites
speaking in code  (ironic...)
framing/ frames/ framed discourse

Here are words we use to code approval or congratulate ourselves:

subtle thinker/subtle thinking
has gravity/gravitas

Words we use to sound smart and identify with the academic club:

agency/being an agent
queering/queer (especially as a verb)
gender (as a verb)
linguistic turn
hybridity/ hybrid
Bakhtinian (quoting Bakhtin is like academic gold.  The same goes for Slavoj Zizek.)

Okay, so our words-- those we use of others, and those we use to describe ourselves-- can tell us a lot of what we think about ourselves.  The funny thing is that a lot of things in the first list is classist, and it's demeaning specifically to intelligence or social class.  Everything in the last two lists are, for the most part, come from a very useful and interesting critical language that has clear benefit in the intellectual arena.  But that's not how we use them in coffee-shop conversation.  They're our codes of belonging, our secret handshake.  Nothing makes you part of the smart set like puffing on about "subaltern identites" or "the sublime," especially if you can work a little Burke or Habermas or Zizek into that conversation, too. Besides, how much fun is it to say "Slavoj Zizek?"  Tons. 

In a sense, I have no problem with the presence of this "club" per se.  That's the way society organizes itself, to be honest.  People with a common association share a common language.  But it's good to take a shot of our own medicine, apply some of that Lacan and Foucault to ourselves, and realize that our language is a tool that we use to manipulate the social order around us, too-- not just the people we don't like.  We use it to get a leg up on that other guy, the person with different political or philosophical beliefs that doesn't share our special vocabulary.  And that impenetrable wall of "discourse" that we erect can keep out those who have the brains and can argue back but don't know the lingo.  

So, perhaps we need to be wary of our motives when we employ the specialist language of our trade outside of the classroom: for unless we deconstruct our Oedipal tendencies and queer our postmodern  discourse, our phallocentric essentializing of the gendered postcolonial ecriture may threaten to objectify the Other into an abject body, subverting their subjectivity and historicizing them into a subaltern who cannot speak.  NASCAR.

 And ya know what's really funny?  That sentence almost works, in a bizarre, mind-bending sort of way.  *giggle.*

Oh, and if you have some free time, check out the Postmodernism Generator to see these codes put to work... in a really fun sort of way.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Religious Codes of Tectonic Theater: Using Your "Inside" Voice

When people speak about certain issues, they always do it from within a limited point of view: are they looking from without or within?  Each perspective is useful in its own way, but they're not the same thing.  Whether or not you consider yourself (or your conversation partner) inside or outside of your community can really affect the way you explain your view of things. 

Religious dialogue, for instance, is one of the places where the play has the hardest time breaking into, so to speak.  This is something observed by a "bench coach" for the original TLP, Stephen Wangh.  As I pointed out in a previous post, Wangh wonders a little bit whether or not Tectonic Theater found themselves unable or unwilling to address that society's "holy protagonists," and more often than not I find that I agree with him. 

But that's not entirely up to Tectonic Theater to decide; after all, those "holy protagonists" have a say in the matter, too.  For a variety of reasons, from doctrinal to social to political, each of these people can make a choice about where to align themselves in regard to Tectonic Theater.  If we look at how different people speak about the religious community-- Unitarians, Mormons, Baptists, and Catholics-- can we see where they see themselves fitting in?  

As for me?  At one time, I was an insider in The Baptist Church.  And now, where am I?  Do I speak now as an insider or an outsider of that community?  Well, just look above for your answer...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Free Stuff! Yay!

Okay, so an important goal for this blog is to make it useful for others who are interested in The Laramie Project or Laramie, Wyoming.  One way I've tried to do that in the past has been to put together a running bibliography of useful literature on the plays.  So far, it has (rightly) been the most popular page on this blog, which makes me quite happy.

The next thing I wanted to do was provide visual materials.  It's hard to find pics of Laramie or relating to TLP that are actually, you know, usable for free.  It's mostly protected under full copyright.  There's not a lot on Flickr for Laramie that's under Creative Commons, so I took a bunch of pics while I was in Laramie this summer, and I'm currently cleaning them up and posting them.  These range from pics of the campus and the plains to a surprisingly close reproduction of the Vintage cover of The Laramie Project (which, if you've ever wondered, is the exit from I-80 onto Grand Avenue). 

You can access the ones I have up so far (and the list will be growing) at the links gadget on the right.  There's one page right now for pictures of the town of Laramie, one for the campus area, and one for landscapes.  These pages will be growing over time, so it wouldn't hurt to check back in a month or so to see what's new.

University of Wyoming
These are free for any non-commercial or editorial use, and you're free to print them without specific permission in any materials, as long as you're not specifically selling them.  (And if you do want to use them for sellable stuff, just drop me a note.)

They're protected under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons copyright, so that gives you a lot of flexibility!

To give you a sample, here's one of my more interesting photos-- a picture of the Matthew Shepard memorial bench being put to good use.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Oh, for shame, fellas...

My home college in Appalachia has a student-run newspaper that sometimes has trouble taking itself seriously, and the most common indication of boredom in the newsroom is when the staff starts screwing around with the headlines for some childish, Beavis and Butthead-esque humor.  One morning in a graduate class, I almost spit coffee all over the guy across the table from me when I read the headline  for a philanthropic showing of The Vagina Monologues:

'Vagina' Opens Tonight for Charity, Issues

I wonder what kind of 'issues' they had in mind...  anyhow, last year or so they got into serious trouble for a rather artsy headline in the sports section after our football team won a narrow victory over the USC Gamecocks.  (I'm sure you can figure out what they did with that.)  It was extremely unoriginal, actually-- just how creative can you really get with a fan base who already spent the entire game chanting, "Beat those Cocks!" at the top of their lungs?
Anyhow, I suppose the trouble they got into for that one has taken some of the edge off of the current staff, but apparently they have lost none of their subversive spirit.  When I looked to the Opinion section, I noticed that they have a section kind of like Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" where they vote for or against things.  In a not-so-clever play off of the team's fight song, guess what they named it?  

Rocky "Tops" and "Bottoms"

I just about had an apoplectic fit of laughing when this struck home.  I'm wondering how long it's going to take anybody in the administration to figure this one out...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Codes and Community in TLP: Looking at Jed (and Jackrabbit)

So, we've been talking a little about how language is often a marker of certain social groups, that what we say, and how we say it, changes with one group to the next.  We code-switch into the codes of one social group into another.  When there's tension between those groups, like, say, the "town and gown" conflict in Laramie, choosing one's language is important because navigating between groups gets perilous.  And, if there's one character who is literally stuck in this divide in The Laramie Project, it's Jed Schultz.  

Jed interests me because I totally understand his plight.  Before I say anything else, let me assure you that Jed was a good kid when I knew him; he was always extremely outgoing and energetic, fun, easily overemotional, and he had a craving to fit in socially with the people he was around.  He also loves his parents.  Never doubt that.  I knew him a little bit from high school, but after I was baptized and attending The Baptist Church, I'd see him come to church with his dad occasionally.   I found him... interesting.  Jed still knew all the codes, from the shiny polyester button-down shirt and pleated slacks to the monogrammed Bible he carried in its nylon zip-up cover and handle, but he never seemed quite at ease.  Before that point, I had never known Jed to seem ill at ease anywhere. 

That sense of ill ease is where I can sympathize; I'm not in the SBC anymore, probably for the same reasons that he was uncomfortable in that church back then.  At the time of the first play, Jed was caught between two different societies, transitioning out of one and into another.  On the one hand, he was born into a Southern Baptist Convention culture with some pretty legalistic ties and proud of its religious independence and political conservatism.  I should know-- I was there.  On the other hand, he was heavily involved in theater in high school, which tends to be a fairly counter-cultural group anyhow, and then he was a theater major at the college.  Those two worlds can't be more opposite.  Again, I should know.  I spent most of my spare time in Fine Arts, just like Jed, and most of my friends were in dance, music or theater.  And in the course of the play, I think that Jed is trying to keep a foot in each world and having trouble figuring out where to stand.  His language, I think, betrays a little bit of that attempt to fit in.  Jed has to switch codes between different groups as he tries to navigate from one to the next. 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why conservative Constitutional values might just be great for gay marriage...

Okay, so even though I'm moving to the center and even left-of-center on a lot of social issues (and especially those important to the GLBT community), when it comes to Constitutional law I can't help but see the world through conservative-colored glasses.  It's just the sphere I was born in, and I really do think that if you give the Constitution a fair chance, it's going to uphold equality and equal justice for everyone.

With that in mind, I just read a really interesting report in the Metro Weekly about the two new federal court rulings regarding the state/federal conflict regarding gay marriage and domestic partnership benefits.  The two cases are Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Massachusetts v. U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Services.   The Metro article naturally focuses on the violation of equal protection by the federal DOMA regulation, but there's another, much more interesting argument here they don't mention: the federal government doesn't have the right to regulate or define restrictions on covenants.  That's specifically in the rights of the state.  So, if the federal government has to pay pensions or benefits to same-sex marriage in a state that says that marriage can consist of same-sex couples, they can't do a thing about it.  They don't have the right do define the terms of that covenant; they just have to pay out. 

That's right: Conservative arguments about state's rights prevent a federal DOMA restriction that short-circuits the state's right to define contracts.  Sure, it means that you can't just pass a federal gay marriage statute to force equality, but it means that if you win the fight on the state level, it might just stick. And conservatives, if they're really good conservatives, can't really fuss about it. 

So... um, here's for state's rights!  Woo-hoo!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Links: The "10 Years Later" Q&A Session, covered by The Daily Planet

To be straight with you, I spent most of the 45 or so minutes following the reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later chatting with our cast here locally, so I missed something like eighty percent of the live linkup to New York.  I haven't found a full transcript or recording of that time yet, but the Twin Cities Daily Planet did a nice job giving a summary of the main questions and how Kaufman and Tectonic responded.  For those of you who would like to look over these again, I've linked it below. 

The full reporting of the Q&A session is here, and it goes through most of the Twitter session fairly carefully.  Enjoy! 

Source:  Everett, Matthew A.  "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later—An Epilogue (Q&A session)."  Twin Cities Daily Planet 17 Oct 2009: n.p.  Web. Also linked here for reference.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Home Again

Well, it's back again to Appalachia after about three weeks reveling in the grass and hills of my real home.  I flew back into town yesterday from Casper, and I'm now trying to get ready for the rest of the summer at a photon's speed-- teaching, studying for exams, copy editing, writing-- and it's so hard when all I see when my mind wanders is the sky on fire, and the way the clouds broke over Pilot Peak after the thunderstorm.... I'll have a lot to write about the whole trip-- about Montana as well-- which I'll do as I have time.   That time I spent alone in the smells and sights I love was extremely revealing to me.  I learned a lot about my family.   And I learned a lot about Laramie.  But mostly, as I stood alone in the wilderness and remembered what the fleshy heads of wheatgrass smell like in the chilly evening breeze, I learned a few new things about myself. 

Yesterday was, admittedly, a sad day for me when my red-eye flight left from Casper to DIA just as the sun was coming up. 
As my little jet plane skated over the tops of the clouds at a low cruising elevation,  I stared despondently out the window at the terrain beneath the wing: Pathfinder and Alcova reservoirs shining, like gold leaf, in the early dawn light, clouds lapping around the mountain peaks like the tide around islands, a lonely Interstate 80 stretching south in a double-thread towards Colorado.  I saw the prairie lakes, which had been dry since I was a teenager, bight as diamonds, scattered over the fields.  And then suddenly I saw it: a town divided in half by rail lines, a cruciform intersection of two wide roads, the Interstate skirting to the south and east.  War Memorial Stadium was unmistakable even at that elevation-- we were flying directly over Laramie, my last view of Wyoming for a long time to come.

And, as I snapped this picture of my final glimpse of home, I realized that I could see so many locations that continue to define me.  I could see what was left of the field where I found my faith, watching the stars with my best friend; it has mostly turned into subdivisions now, and the houses are so close that stargazing would be nearly impossible anymore.
I could also see the college where I grew too quickly into an adult.  I could see the Interstate winding to the little knot that tied in to Happy Jack Road, the place where I fell in love with my husband under a summer's sky on Pilot Hill.  And I could also see the exact spot where Matt was murdered at the place where two unmarked dirt roads nearly meet, like creases in a crumpled map.  All of them were tied together by the same relentless stretch of land-- not just in the land, but in my mind, too, and I couldn't pick one place over the other.  From the air, they're all part of the same long stretch topography marked in shades of green, brown and red. 

That moment made me realize once more how much my search to understand Laramie, and The Laramie Project, is really an attempt to understand myself, those darkened places in my landscape which I want to forget but to which I have to be reconciled.  I can never be a passive observer of this landscape because those valleys and clefts carved out by that tragedy are a part of me, too.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Yeah, You Betcha Dere: the Power and Politics of Code Switching

I want to know... whether they are deranged freaks, murderers who committed crimes in the name of the government, or whether they are forcing the Afrikaner to confront himself.  More to the point-- what do I have in common with the men I hate the most?...

I interview them one after the other in a quiet corner of the Pretoria Synod hall.  "You know, your whole body language and tone of voice change when you are with these men," says an English-speaking colleague.  "I couldn't hear what you were talking about, but there is a definite intimacy..."  I say nothing.  I did use all the codes I grew up with, and have been fighting against for a lifetime.  But now I want a good story and I want to understand them.  (117-118)
--Antjie Krog, talking about the Vlakplaas Five, in Country of my Skull 117-118)

Choosing one set of codes over another can often involve power relations among certain classes or cultures.  Social codes can have political or personal cachet-- delineating who's in the club, who's on the outside, or who has the superior social role, for instance.  As somebody navigating through a culture whose cultural layers are also divided into linguistic layers, Antjie Krog's code switches-- and power plays-- often fall along linguistic lines.  She switches into the verbal and non-verbal intimacy of Afrikaans when talking to the Vlakplaas Five in order to gain their trust.  A certain inflection in Afrikaans over the phone is enough to provoke panic even before the death threat is pronounced.  And sound of an English accent against her Afrikaans is enough to put her at a rhetorical disadvantage in a philosophical debate.  The language you use and codes you employ-- or have employed against you-- can have a profound effect on one's social positioning. 

For an extreme example, my first teaching job in the deep South was on the coast, and one or two of my students spoke the Sea Island Creole dialect (also known as Gullah).  It's not a matter of bad grammar; Gullah has distinct western African parallels and, if  you learn the rules, it makes perfect sense.  But these kids were effectively told that their home English was not welcome at school because the grammar rules they followed were "wrong."  I only worked in an after-school tutoring program in the inner city for one afternoon because I couldn't stand listening to their otherwise well-intentioned and sweet volunteer teacher constantly scolding the kids for their "gutter"  English.  In short, the kids were forced to "talk white," as some of them put it, and they resented it.

I was torn on this.  On the one hand, my job was to teach college freshmen to express themselves in their own language.  For me, that means writing to their own community in an expressive, idiomatic Gullah.  On the other hand, I was also supposed to teach them how to write papers for college classes.  That meant teaching them the language codes of the university and forcing them to write in standard English.  I was supposed to teach them the language codes required to be a part of and an agent within the "academic" social set. So, I marked anything outside of standard English wrong-- and I felt like a heel while doing it. 

Although these are heavily politicized examples in America, almost every person has some experience with this issue of navigating through different social spheres with different language.  Many people speak completely different languages at home or work; others have a vocabulary for certain exclusive societies.  We have to switch in and out of these social circles linguistically to navigate.  Language is power. 

My own experience has been far more mundane than my students from the Sea Islands, as it's only an issue when navigating between my home culture and academia.  For instance, when I was in Montana a few years ago on my way to visit my grandparents, we stopped in a town we used to live in to visit some friends.  My parents caught up with two of their friends, the "Fosters" at an old cafe on the edge of town, a standard burger-and-steak joint with a fiberglass mustang out front.   Mrs. "Foster" has Blackfeet heritage and her husband was a retired rodeo bull rider.  They raised three plucky, strong-willed daughters whom I used to play with when I was little.  After my father cheerfully explained to Mr. "Foster" that I was still in school for my PhD, my mother joked, "In a couple more years she's going to be too educated to speak to us anymore."  Ouch.  The "Fosters" both laughed.  I looked over at my mother, set my jaw, and said in my best high line accent,
"Hey now, hold on dere-- I don' wan' no sheepskin 'f it means I can't be a normal person."
 The speed at which I unconsciously switched into this gear surprised me.  When my parents tried to suggest I was falling out of their collective society, the only way I felt I could respond was by changing my language to demonstrate otherwise.  Judging by the raised eyebrow and grin I got, I think Mrs. "Foster" (who was born twenty miles from my birthplace and whose accent is similar to mine)  got the point.   

In this case, my code-switching was mainly an issue of reinforcing my place in my community in a way my parents would understand.  But many times, this code-switching is more about power relations than belonging.  The powerful set gets to determine which codes are acceptable and which aren't allowed.  Think back to the Krog example I shared with you at top; Krog's Afrikaner accent puts her at a disadvantage with English South Africans, but it lets her move freely among the Vlaakplas Five because she's part of the group.  If you follow a different set, then you're out of power.  Although the writing is a little bit questionable, Ellen Cushman's book The Struggle and the Tools was an important first step to understanding the politics of language and code-switching from a compositional standpoint.  The community she studies is an inner-city minority community, and she follows its linguistic strategies (like code-switching) for survival against the local bureaucracy. 

But the struggle for power and language is everywhere-- not just the inner city.  Everybody wants to fit in somewhere, and everyone learns and uses the languages of certain groups to their own advantage.     Usually I unconsciously switch out of my Montana high-line accent when I'm talking to my professors, and I especially did it when Sarah Palin was running for VP back in 2008 because her so-called "Mooseburger" accent (and by extension, mine) had been branded by the literati as "ignorant."  I just couldn't stand the funny looks.

But I was surprised to catch myself babbling on angrily in my tepid Canadian wannabe accent in the middle of class shortly before the election was over.  The class discussion had wandered off-topic for a few minutes to politics, so the professor proceeded to explain how all people who voted a certain way (people like my father) were all a bunch of rifle-toting, truck-driving trailer trash with GEDs and questionable religious beliefs.  (Well, it was something along those lines.)  Even though I didn't respond back to his flaming remarks directly, I did spend the rest of class glaring a lot and sounding like a stage extra from Fargo while throwing out words like "ain't" and "ya know" and "you betcha."  Why did I do it?

It took a little while to figure it out: even though I didn't want to challenge him openly in class,  I still wanted to create distance between him and myself, between his views and my world.  So I code switched out of an academic register and in to the social class he was mocking to show where my loyalties lay.  I linguistically walked out of the academic sphere, so to speak, and slammed the door behind me.  

So, people often switch in and out of groups by switching in and out of certain registers or the ways that they talk.  People can choose to identify with or against communities with their language.  This gets really interesting, for instance, if you start digging through The Laramie Project.  Who is identifying with whom? Can we get a sense of community or alignment based on the linguistic codes each one follows?  Are the interviewers or interviewees trying to place themselves within social groups, or without? 

Maybe. I'm not really convinced that you can, but we'll look few interesting spots in the two TLP plays in the next few weeks nonetheless, just to see what we can find.  We'll keep these ideas about language, and codes, and code switching-- belonging, maneuvering, advantage and disadvantage-- to see if we can find different languages, and codes, in The Laramie Project.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Johnny Cash and my Grandmother

As I'm up here in Wyoming, I find myself thinking of my grandmother a lot.  My grandmother's "tall drink of water" wasn't my grandfather (who was, admittedly, a very "handsome fella" in his day).  It was Johnny Cash, the man who gave her rebellion a voice.  Every time Cash's name came up in conversation when I was a child, my Grandmother would get this funny little light in her eyes-- something mischievous, alive.  She didn't really speak in terms of hero worship or admiration.  She loved his music, to be sure-- but that's rarely the context I heard her mention his name.  She once defiantly announced in front of my grandfather that Cash "could park his boots under [her] bed anytime."  I remember stifling a childish giggle.  I don't remember my grandfather's reaction, however, but I bet it ended up with a fight.

I think it was a connection that went a little farther than Cash's resinous voice, gorgeous deep eyes or rebellious personality; rather, they were both shockingly beautiful, profane people needing redemption, and I think she recognized that.  In the midst of their personal turmoil and agonizing failures, they both longed for something stable and holy, something which they knew, for all their stubborn willpower and passion, they couldn't provide for themselves. 

And then there's this video.  I only ran into it recently when I heard it over the stereo at a local taco joint, and the sound of Cash's voice singing Nine Inch Nails over the hubbub stopped me in mid-bite.  It made me think of my grandmother.  I looked the whole song up on my computer a little while later, and I was just overwhelmed.   Oh my gosh, the psychological pain in this song is unbearable.

Even though I know how talented he is, I've never liked Trent Reznor; he's a good songwriter and can tap into pain (but little else) with a raw-edged clarity.  But Cash takes it and turns that anguish into something else-- it's a lament to Christ, for a seemingly wasted life. 

I don't know what my grandmother would have thought of hearing the discontented spokesman of her generation singing music from the discontented voice of mine.  Maybe it's something in the slight lisp in Cash's voice that betrays his last stroke (just like hers once did), but I think she would see something familiar in this song, something that would break her heart... 

Friday, July 2, 2010

Now there's a "Handsome Fella": Codes and Family Again

You know, after writing that last post, it's funny where I start thinking about code switching and my grandmother's codes for different kinds of masculinity-- and where those codes resurface.   I recently got back from Montana where I was helping to move my grandfather from his three bedroom  house to a retirement apartment complex in his hometown.  It's been a solid week of stress and tongue-biting as we have packed, re-packed, coddled him, begged him, and even browbeat him into doing everything he has to do for his own good, like leaving the house unlocked when the real-estate agent comes to show the house, or not swindling a relative in a car deal.  But, he's finally moved in, thank goodness-- the stress is over, and I'm happy to escape back to Wyoming for a few days before going back to Appalachia.

So, one thing we needed to do was to find and pack up all the family heirlooms and memorabilia before the estate planner came to sell the rest.  As my mother, aunt and I were digging down in the closet in the basement to get everything ready for a garage sale, we came across a box of old pictures.  Most of them were pictures from the Judith Basin of extended family now long since forgotten.  My mother and aunt looked through the pictures one at a time and tried to place faces.  "This is Mom's aunt's family, isn't it?"  Mom would ask.  "She looks like one of Edith's kids, doesn't she?"

Most were stiff, formal pictures of farmer's families and children taken in Harlowtown at the portrait studio in the next county over.  I have one of some unidentified second or third cousin from the twenties who is a dead ringer for my four year-old niece. 

One of the things we came across was this early photograph of my grandfather in his enlisted uniform, shortly before going off to the Pacific theater in World War II.   My mother laughed out loud as she pulled it from the box, and she and my aunt spent a lot of time reminiscing over it.  As they chatted about when it must have been taken and whether or not their grandmother was still alive at that point, I looked into those cold, blue eyes and face devoid of all kindness, and I felt a little queasy.  He might not swing a fist like he once did, but those eyes still burn with a cold heat that sears like frostbite.   And in every photograph I've ever seen of him as an adult, he never once genuinely smiles. 

Mom handed the picture over to me so I could have a closer look.  "Your Grandpa certainly was a handsome fella in his day, wasn't he?"  She asked.

"A real looker,"  My aunt agreed.  A handsome fella.  I suppressed a shudder at the coincidence of their words, and what those words actually meant to me.