Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Naked Ears and Other Portals

Some decades ago I was in Manhattan doing the usual tourist things like waiting in line for a couple of hours to access a famous landmark. It happened to be the Empire State building. As I walked out of the elevator and approached the wall marking the perimeter of the observation deck, I heard music coming over the wall. It was the harmony of a church choir and the sound seemed to rise so that the choir appeared to be invisible, but present all around me. The sensation was so palpable that I beckoned to my companions and asked them to listen with me.

"Do you hear that music?", I asked them and just as the words left my mouth, the sound fell apart like shards of broken glass falling from a darkened window to reveal the traffic noise and horns honking on the street below. It wasn't music at all; it was just me and the ears I came in with. So I just stood in awe of this experience of hearing New York City singing to me out of the raw sounds of taxi cabs and horns honking. I felt like an impressionistic artist. Artists are, after all, tuned to their own peculiarities of perception.

Recently after a year of reading an impressive list of books on all the many ways the planet and humankind was essentially doomed unless we did X, and that X never seemed very convincing, I came to the conclusion that I had reached a dead end; one that seemed to have the fingerprints of patriarchy all over it. Surely this can't be it? I kept asking myself. Surely this is not the end of my journey to save the planet and humankind? How did I manage to acquire the plotline of a comic book superhero anyway?

As I was coming to this conclusion a voice I could not see nor lay a physical claim to, much like the choir singing to me from the gutteral sounds of New York City, delivered a message to me from that same city, via e-mail. It made me stop short at its audaciousness. "Because", she said, "you realize that Henry IS the end of civilzation, even if not consciously." Henry was a code name for cluelessness, for straight men, for a one dimensional consciousness, for the partriarchy. It would take me longer to explain my connection to this young woman, than the notion that angels were serenading me from the heavens. The story is itself a journey of intertwining perceptions, overheard/seen conversations, and a shared obsession; a journey peculiar to this new and perhaps not so new ( if you are under 30) mode of human interaction taking place via the internet.

Last week at a national conference in Minneapolis that I attended, with 860 other organizers, I had an appointment to meet Claire, a colleague who was going to facilitate a panel on which I was to speak. As I joined her on the couch, in the lobby of the hotel, she introduced me to a woman who told me she had seen my shoe covers on the net.

"My shoe covers?" I said incredulous, though I knew exactly what she meant. I had proudly posted pictures of a pair of shoe covers, for cycling in the rain, that I had made from a vinyl briefcase—a conference giveaway discarded by a client. She had been Googling for a pattern to make a bag and when my posting had come up, had taken the time to look at my creation. She recognized my name. This was even more surprising because the shoe covers were on my photo blog, under my pseudonymn Earthworm. She had taken the trouble to discover my actual identity and remember it, which was why we were having this serendipitous moment in Minneapolis. Suddenly I felt that much closer to all my net contacts.

As with the singing from an unseen place, it was my ears that got me so deeply involved in the net in the first place.

I am hard of hearing. Have been at least since fifth grade when I arrived in this technologically rich country and was routinely tested at school. No cause was found for my hearing loss, other than the hereditary example of my great Auntie Jessie who wore one of those clunky hearing aids, the size of a pack of cigarettes, strapped to her brassiere. And though my hearing loss didn't hinder me much, it did leave some lasting marks on the way I related to people.

I annoyed my friends a lot by repeating back to them what I thought they had said, usually with an absurd twist to any possible meaning. I met someone else who did this, too, only he made everything into sexual inuendos. As a result he got laid more than I did, but I was funnier.

I live in a world of fluid meaning. I often experienced two sets of responses, one for what I thought I heard and one for what was actually said. I liked the possibilities. I grew fond of ambiguity. I was also able to ignore a lot, but I could also be a "good" listener.

"You have such an open face," said a business colleague to me once, catching herself in a candid moment. "I felt compelled to tell you my whole life, just now." I was probably just staring earnestly at her as though to hang on every word, lip reading as it were. It took all my concentration.

Through my twenties, so much of my focus was taken up with discerning what was being said (plus looking for the cultural clues I needed to place myself in proper context), that I didn't bother to say much in return. Not that I didn't have plenty to say, I just kept it to myself and spent much of my life writing copiously in my journal in search of the underlying subtext and truth of the interactions I had experienced through the day.

When e-mail came along, this writing practice burst through on the keyboard and I found myself revealing things to people that I had never offered anyone before. My e-mails became essays, which led to my putting up a blog site because I was writing about my electric car and I just had to post pictures of this eye-popping visual. This I did through the photo-hosting site, flickr, because I wasn't geek enough to blog photos without the help of their interface.

Flickr, like the famous MySpace phenomena, had users who interacted with each other (a dynamic now given the term "Web 2.0", but I like my term — interbloggactic — better). Because of the photographs flickerati took of their own corner of the world, the site had a much more slice-of-life perspective that was largely free of pop culture, but full of talented photographers, subversive cartoonists, artists using salvaged materials, eclectic tool collectors, activist-bicyclists, foodies and animal lovers.

That strangers would actually look at pictures I took as I went about my life was a mystery of curiosity. When they left comments admiring a photo I'd taken, I was so startled I had to adjust to this new public interaction. It was just a little eery. Having not grown up with the Internet, I felt as though I had entered into a land of made up, invisible friends who only existed in my picture brain.

Soon I had collected contacts with similar values and interests, from all over the world. Two years rolled by and I had posted over 600 pictures all with carefully chosen titles and captions which were becoming longer and longer as the site became my behind-the-scenes studio, to test ideas out on my flickr friends who, if they were inspired, would leave appreciative comments, tips and practical solutions for projects I was undergoing.

This photo interface on flickr tapped into a creative space that was different from words. When I accidentally summoned Claire's blog while typing in another address, I found a clue to this otherness in her discussion of the book "The Alphabet and the Goddess". Written words, the book explained, developed the linear, conceptual, aggressive, patriarchal side of the brain while pictures and picture making were the realm of the goddess—the creative, intuitive, holistic side of the brain. No wonder I felt so nurtured on flickr.

I did enter other online interactions, prompted by having become smitten with a TV character, okay, a deaf, lesbian, sculptor who inspired in me a new deaf pride that I couldn't quite lay a claim to, but she was so cool (and hot), I couldn't help myself. Before her appearance, I would not have offered information about my hearing "disability" and unless you were close enough to see my hearing aids, which I don't wear all the time, anyway, you would never have known this about me, and I would never have discovered what an interesting portal my ears were. Or gotten the message from my New York based blogger (whose primary blog existence was to discuss this TV show), prompting me to realize that I had chased my superhero plotline to a patriarchal dead end, which left me repeatedly asking the question, was civilization an act of hubris?

Was literature, art and music merely an act of ego that had allowed us to justify exploiting and abusing our land base for our greater glory?

So there I was in the middle of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, thinking maybe the key to our salvation was not in techno-solutions to counter our impact on the planet, but really was (as had been suggested before) in changing the stories we told ourselves. And what better way to blow our narrative minds than with the visual arts? For it was with this boundary pushing, myth-making, questioning of authority, evocative, provocative portal of artmaking, that we had a chance to explode the old paradigm.

Three days earlier, my moved-to-Minnesota, art professor friend, Christine, had taken me to see a community art project called "Rain Garden", that she and her students had created. I was dumbstruck. Holly mother of the Goddess! I was looking at a textbook, dug-into-the-ground, water-harvesting system that permaculture gardeners were now trying to revive as an eco solution to drought. And it was sculptural and visually interesting, due to the salvaged antique curbstones that had been used to shore up the swales. Here under the name of Art with a capital A, supported and funded by grants and the blessing of the University of Minnesota was a land based, irrigation system transformed into living sculpture.

"Does this project have a website?" I asked Christine because I just had to bring this concept, of art reframing eco-solutions, to the attention of well, everyone. It did not. For Christine, the finished art was the record of her artistic journey and vision. Her paintings and projects were her means of communicating her experience. That's the thing with a work of "fine" art; it is a site specific, physical manifestation usually experienced in the hallowed halls of museums. And as I spent the week visiting museum after museum in this wonderfully accessible city, I kept thinking "I need to explore more about how we/I can more readily access and use art as a means to rejuvinate my/our heroic journey".

On the last day of conference, I gave my presentation on the Simple and Sustainable panel. And because I had lost interest in talking about the importance of being more Green (there didn't seem to be any point due to my conundrum with the existence of civilization), I had planned my talk around the making of cardboard and paper drawer organizers to offer an alternative to buying more plastic. At the podium I folded, for the forty organizers present, an origami box from a picture page of a discarded wall calendar, all the while talking about the perils of plastic littering the ocean. When I had folded down the last flap of the box, I held it up triumphantly.

"There," I said admiring it, "Organizer as Artisan". My delighted audience broke into a nice round of applause.

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At 10:09 AM, Blogger Robert van de Walle said...

I love your friend Claire's idea about ADD being a restorative force, bringing us back to a more balanced view of our selves and our relationship to the planet. Thanks for providing the link.

I often think about the living/processing "style" of new people. I know that growing up, there were very few people who could think and feel the way I do; now, there are more and more. I don't mena they share my beliefs and values; I mean they process information in a way that uses their whole brains and bodies.

I get along with very few people my own age.

Other note:

I also fail to accurately process phonemes into meaning, though seldom with hilarious results nore with the benefit of getting laid. As I meditate more, and take care of my nervous system, it seems that I'm getting more accurate. But email saved my butt: finally, a communication medium where I could say exactly whaat I meant, and read exactly what another wrote!

At 3:49 PM, Blogger riese said...

Speaking of the internet and shared values, it's interesting that you speak of many of the issues my girlfriend and I were discussing yesterday (and the day before that, and the day before that).... which I've just tried to write out and delete over and over in this graf and totally failed. Maybe when I find the right words...I'll write them. [something about how I want to draw attention to our un"healthy" relationship to pop culture/television shows that suck by talking WITHIN it, and she wants to talk more like "against" it, if that makes sense?] Here. Anyhow, it's just funny, how similar things are, and so far away. Your desire to watch the stupid show validates mine, because you too, know there're bigger issues to deal with, obvs...but, I'm interested in it specifically because it addresses a marginalized community that certainly deserves better...or I'm rambling. Urr.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger AK said...

Bob, you're the second person who was drawn to comment on this piece from the ADD angle and that's not including those ADDers who gave me extra special hugs when they saw me next. It drew my attention to the value of a narrative that speaks to how we see things from such an individualized perspective.

Riese, you and your girlfriend are bringing up the same question I keep asking myself about popular culture and especially TV, which was "is this our Bread and Circuses?" When Rome was running amuck and going down the imperialistic goo goo hole, the populace was appeased same token, is the energy of the queer community being mollified/subjugated by this demographic specific show that allows us to put aside our anger and frustration at how things are going and just transfers our frustration to how much better this show could be (if these characters that we so love to watch, could just get a better script)? Or was the world so exhausting that without such guilty pleasures, we would just be burnout cases?

Could be both. I certainly felt that my rep would be tarnished if I even admitted to watching TV and hadn't killed it, already. But that would imply that my readers were already pure and liberated and I was just preaching to the converted (and the converted still need such sustenance). But popular culture is so accessible to those who might see something they resonate with, but not know yet why.

So I was on the fence, so to speak. And was relieved to discover, through your deft critique of the show, that there was still a sensibility that was aware that we deserved better.

And though I feared that I would never be picked up by the energy bulletin again, I kept exploring my connections to this show, eventually realizing that the need for stories from our marginalized community was serving some purpose and cannot be allowed to be fullfilled by The L Word alone. Your story of meeting Tara, for instance, is already way more interesting and nuanced, and my story of my friends outdoor sculpture is way more meaningful than finding a sculptural home for an old sign (even if it did come from San Francisco). And, in the end, our stories do eventually come around to what's important. And we have the opportunity to bring along all those who got on the net looking for these stories. So it's all good, as the hackneyed saying goes.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger AK said...

To be fair, "finding a sculptural home for an old sign" was one of the more inspired episodes of TLW Season 4. Not only did we get to see Bette and friends use tools competently, but there was a big emotional pay off when she delivered the sign to Jodi as proof of her love.


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