My Gift to You

Just in time for Christmas is this series of posts about my encounter with George and Laura. Like all good sagas, it has three parts. So pour a little more booze in your egg nog (you’ll need it), and settle in as we try to figure out if W. belongs on the naughty or nice list.

King George I: The Waiting

It’s after I’ve been standing out in the unusually cold Atlanta weather for an hour and a half, with no breakfast and too thin socks, with my nose running and my fingers on strike, that I begin to think, why the hell am I doing this? How far can you stretch irony before it snaps back and slaps you in the face?

I’m in line to get a wristband to be able to come back the next day and stand in line again and THEN, finally, have President George W. Bush and Laura Bush sign copies of their respective autobiographies.

And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

I got the email from Borders yesterday saying the Bushes would be at a Borders downtown signing. My immediate thought was, I’ll go get my picture taken with them for the blog! That alone should have warned me that I’m in a strange mental place. My second thought was, I’ll get Bush to sign one for my sister that says, “Thanks for all the support!” Because that’s HILARIOUS.

My sister is not Bush people.

So these and other motives were enough to get me up out of bed and through early rush hour traffic to the bookstore at 8 in the morning. I didn’t know what to expect – it’s cold, it’s a workday, and lots of people don’t like Bush. Will I be the only one? Will I get my picture taken for the paper with a caption that says “This little boy waited hours just to meet his hero”? I might be the new poster child for the GOP!

No. There was already a line stretching the side of the shopping complex. It multiplied several times after I arrived. Maybe it’s because we’re all unemployed and have nothing else to do?

It doesn’t take long for people to start making small talk pleasantries, and maybe the first thing that catches my attention is this woman behind me – think Laura Linney but not as nice skin – talking about how she gave her blanket to this pregnant woman who showed up without proper insulation. “And she was like, no, that’s okay, and I said, honey, for your baby, at least.”

Nice murmurs of approbation from her neighbors. It is true that the woman was generous – she had her son procure an extra pair of foot warmers (I don’t know what these are; they came wrapped in foil like astronaut food) for this other lady in line. Her charity was almost matched by her enthusiasm for repeating the stories of her charity. “Mommy gave her blanket to the pregnant lady, remember?”

Yes, you see, she had her school-age children with her, though she dispatched them to the car to wait in relative warmth. “They’re so excited about possibly getting to meet him,” she said. “Yep, we’ve got good little Republicans.”

I know what you’re thinking: shouldn’t they be in school? But come on. You must know what’s coming next.

“We homeschool,” she said, “so this is a field trip.” Ah. “Yeah, you know the public schools sometimes I think want to turn them into little Democrats, so we homeschool.”

Yes she did say that. You could feel the uncertainty in the air around those listening to her, all of whom – like the overwhelming majority of normal people – went to public school. So they smiled but didn’t say anything. Then they quietly checked their political pulses to see if public school had made them Dems without their knowing it.

“I already got Laura Bush’s book signed this summer,” said the guy in front of me; okay, you’ve passed the test. When pressed for details – and when not pressed, as he liked to be the expert – he informed me that it’s just a marathon signing session – no pictures, no personalization, no handshaking, no small talk.

I had long given up on a photo, but part of how I had been passing the time, when my hands retreated from holding any more books, was to imagine what I might say to the Man, or how much I might spit into my hand before I offered it for shakes. Now the most I could really hope for was just being in mostly the same air space as him, and – if I’m lucky – making eye contact, maybe getting a smile and a “hello.”

In part this is a relief, because I worry about failure of nerve. First of all, my Bush hatred is behind me, a relic of my NYU years when I even wore the t-shirt with his face x’d out. Yeah I still think he did a lot of unparalleled damage to the country, but it’s hard to muster real indignation about it now. For lots of reasons I won’t delve into, but also for the commonplace reason that it’s hard to sustain rage or any strong emotion for any amount of time. So while I thought about making some kind of grand gesture – the guy who spat tobacco juice in Jane Fonda’s face comes to mind – I figured I’d end up like Dorothy on The Golden Girls.

You see, in the classic episode “The President’s Coming! The President’s Coming!,” the girls are told H. W. will be making a special visit to their house – a meet the common people sort of thing. Dorothy’s going to give him a piece of her mind – she has a clipboard of notes. In the end, Rose asks about vacuuming, Sophia asks why he didn’t bring a cake, Blanche hits on the secret service, and then Dorothy is struck speechless. All she can say is, “Buuuuush.”

But my Golden Girl daydreaming was interrupted when the woman behind me said, “So you’re an ACLU intern? I see it on your bag.”

Shit. Caught.

“Yes, yes I am.” She asked me what I did there, and I told her about the intake process for letters. Very boring, but, I said, humbling because you learn about what other people are going through. This is mostly a pompous lie, but I said it. Then I said, “I think maybe I should turn that badge around, I know it’s not a favorite organization around here!”

She and the guy in front of me laughed. But they didn’t say anything. No, “oh no don’t be silly.” Just laughter and then silence.

“But you can be both!” I said. Which is another stupid thing to say. I can’t be sure, at this point, why I was acting like one of them, but I bet if you’d given me another few minutes I would have praised God.

Luckily, nobody spoke to me. But speaking of God, Laura L.’s son returned from the car in time to tell us about this crazy thing he heard on a “church retreat.” “There were these people who were going to Walmart at like midnight, to buy stuff.” Uh huh. “And they didn’t know that it was the night the Twilight movie was coming out.” Uh oh. “So there were like a ton of people there, like more than in this line.”

Wow. Enjoy your time with the Christian Youth, kid. It’s a whole lot of bad haircuts and boring stories.

Puzzlingly, the jovial man in the Bears cap then said, “Well I guess none of those people are here today.”

I don’t know what he meant either. Those bastard Twilight kids. Having all that no sex with each other. Look, it’s made Harry Potter giggle:

That picture can be found by Googling “Twilight sex,” by the by. Yes, for you I go to the uncomfortable edges of the digital frontier.

He also told Laura L. that he’d taken his family to the inauguration, the most recent one (involving you know who). “But why?” she said. “Oh, we go to every one. It’s a tradition.” “Oh,” she said. “A tradition. And…well…it was history.”

We could all feel that there was some rather bigoted joke to be made here, but no one had the guts or wits to make it.

Getting back to God: once we finally made it inside the store, we were still waiting but in better spirits. But the lady behind me was anxious about the time. “I’m doing Meals on Wheels today,” she said. “And I don’t want those seniors to go hungry because I’m here! I don’t think God would look kindly on that!”

The woman next to her said, “What, you don’t think he’s a Republican?”

At this the first lady leaned in and, sotto voce, said, “Actually I think he is.” As if this very question had kept her up last night, and she’d resolved it.

But I tell you what, for all this God talk, what that line really needed was some New York liberals and Jews. If you’ve ever waited in line for Shakespeare in the Park or, well, anything in New York, you know that if somebody cuts, there is a loud uproar. This is not tolerated. Well, our line started to swell from late arrivals having places saved. In front of us there appeared two UGA-law-school-types, a guy and a girl. I said something, mostly to myself, in that way you do when you don’t want to get into it. But then the waters started to boil. Others voiced their annoyance, and then we all started to focus on Laura L.

“You should say something,” we said. “You’ve been nice all morning. You’re due.” You could feel our brains egging her on, please, do something, say something, stand up for us. We’re so cold. You have foot warmers.

So she approached them and said, “If they run short [of wristbands], I’m calling you out. But if they don’t run short, we’re fine.”

TAKE THAT, YOU LINE CUTTING BITCHES.

King George II: The Meeting

Yesterday’s line cutters made me think that maybe the rage is coming back. Maybe I can be like the Iraqi shoe-thrower. Remember that guy? The 14th was the two year anniversary of Muntadhar al-Zeidi chucking his footwear and shouting, “This is your farewell kiss, you dog!” No matter what I do, I won’t be topping that.

Al-Zeidi was treated to nine months in Iraqi prison, where he alleges he was tortured. He is also donating the proceeds from the book he’s just released – The Last Salute to President Bush – “to a charity foundation he has set up for Iraqis who suffered from U.S. occupation.” I’m pretty sure the 50 bucks I spent on Bushbooks goes towards building the Bush Library. But it’s ironic support, right? Everybody gets that?

Since all of us reading this blog know that Mean Girls explains everything worth knowing in life, I can compare my situation to when Cady started acting so much like the plastics (to keep her cover safe) that she was actually becoming one. But without a gay best friend to rescue me from my delusions, I was stuck going back to Borders the next morning – still surprisingly cold – to wait once more.

This time I’m with a bunch of sorority girls, ex-UGA and GT, most of whom went into law school, or tried law school but quit, or skipped law school to go work on the Hill. They discussed the pros and cons of J. Crew, the perils of bridesmaid dresses, and how much exercising to do when pregnant. I fit right in.

In front of me was a guy who had waited from 3 AM the day before, only to find out, as we all did, that the order of the line from yesterday didn’t matter, and today it was plain old first come first served. Blown. He spent most of his time chatting up a mom and her son, a first year Emory student. His haircut was alright, but his mom held his umbrella for him and did his talking. She even explained for him that his dad was not “forcing,” but you know, dad-ing him to major in Business instead of Music so that he could get a job. At this point the kid spoke up and said, “But I can minor in Music.”

That’s right, man. And you will join a Saturday jam band with your cubicle buddies and you guys will just rock the Dave Matthews covers.

Emory’s mom then remembered that “Mrs. DeLillo said you can have the drum set, you just need to come pick it up. And bring her a bottle of wine.”

Then we had two line cutters. It was very exciting this time. They cut right in front of me because they knew the guy from the other day. And this one girl behind me was not having it. She was a New Yorker in spirit. She did several brilliant things. One of them was, after voicing her initial displeasure, to cheat out, opening herself to the crowd, and say, “I mean, unless everyone else in this line doesn’t care about you cutting?” She pulled that move twice. Very effective. There were some guys who looked like Deliverance extras behind us. And the spokesperson for the cutters – they were these skinny, bitchy looking girls – said, in the most patronizing tone possible, “We were here yesterday at two o’clock in the morning.” But my new hero wasn’t having it. Because then when the women tried to ignore us, my hero said, “I’m not going to let this go, either. When that guy comes back, I’m telling him.”

Bam. Bitches to the back. 

Once inside the store we snaked around and up the steps. The Secret Service! They had the little earpiece cords going down their necks! They made jokes with us! They had bulges in under their coats!

And then we hear the hooting of women from behind the curtain. I think some gals actually got up on Bush’s little podium with him, but I can’t be sure. They were making a lot of noise, that’s for sure. Then I heard his voice. And I thought, that’s Bush’s voice! He sounds just like himself!

Then one of the ya-yas, finally leaving the area, called out, “We love you George!” again, and he said, “Thank you baby,” without missing a beat.

I turned the corner and there he was, in front of a mountain of books. Signing, being folksy. I said aloud, to no one, in a sincere but goofy tone, “This is exciting!” A Secret Service agent, clearly realizing I was special needs, smiled politely. All through the line I had been weighing what I might say to the man – or say at him, if nothing else. First I thought it would be, “I think you’re a terrible president,” but I discarded that, because you’d have to define “president.” I mean if it’s someone who’s supposed to lead the country and do what the people want, well, he was pretty popular until the end there.

Then I thought, how about “I think you’re a criminal.” Daring, certainly. Maybe too daring. I wasn’t worried about Bush; I figured if he heard me he’d jab me right back. I was worried about the people around me in line. Who might jab me in other ways.

How about, “Do you feel guilty about anything?” This is good. It almost has a journalistic curiosity to it, but I could say it with just a little pointedness. Just to say the word “guilty” to him would be tasty. Okay.

It’s my turn. He shakes my hand. He looks me right in the eye. I feel weak.

Bush: Thank you for coming. It’s so nice to meet you.

Me: It’s nice to meet you, Mr. President.

Pause. I’m not going to say anything. I can’t say anything. I don’t remember any words.

Me: Do you have any regrets?

Pause.

Bush: Yeah you’ll find some in there. That’s why I wrote the book!

I shifted down to Mrs. Bush like I was in line for the Soup Nazi. She held out her hand daintily, I took it, and she said, “Merry Christmas!” I have no idea what I said to her. What I had wanted to say was, “You seem okay.” But I was in a Bush mist. Laura seemed to be sparkling. I think she was wearing several pieces of jewelry that caught the light, but to me the effect was like that princess in The Neverending Story.

I was exuberant. I spoke to Bush! I said the word regret to him! I made him think, for half a second, about the concept of regret! Sure, it’s a watered down version of “guilty,” but I managed to spit it out, even after the Texas charm.

I took my books and floated down the escalator. I crossed the street and traffic stopped for me. I couldn’t find my car in the parking deck so I merely summoned it with my hand. The car and I drove home at 120 mph and didn’t get a ticket.

I could get used to this Republican stuff.

King George III: The Thinking

To the left, an ironic pun. It’s ironic because you don’t expect Obama to be the one who – oh never mind. Also to the left, a woman’s chest. Presumably. Below, I want to share something with you from Decision Points by George W. Bush:

My one regret about the PATRIOT Act is its name. When my administration sent the bill to Capitol Hill, it was initially called the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001. Congress got clever and renamed it. As a result, there was an implication that people who opposed the law were unpatriotic. That was not what I intended. I should have pushed Congress to change the name of the bill before I signed it.

So picture me in my little futon bed last night reading this (go ahead, picture me), and I think you’ll understand the trouble it caused me. Is this true? This makes W. seem so…thoughtful. Did ANYONE think he was thoughtful? I was not ready for this. Charming, sure. Even intelligent I can handle. I’ve read/seen David Hare’s Stuff Happens, a play about the lead-up to the Iraq war, and I’ve heard Hare speak about it, and so I know that one of the greatest so-called misconceptions about Bush, according to people who know him, is that he’s an idiot, when really he’s the shrewdest person in the room who basically just gets what he wants from you and moves on. But thoughtful? I mean this passage practically gives the image of Bush chewing on the tip of his quill, feeling blue for the three flaming liberals who voted against his legislative baby.

And he wasn’t just thoughtful about what to have for dinner. He’s thoughtful about the political ramifications of language. The man’s a George Orwell in disguise.

I was not ready for such jelly.

And it’s true, too. A blog called NotionsCapital (intentional spelling error?) reveals that the guy who got “clever,” as Bush puts it, was “a junior staffer one year out of college, Christopher S. Cylke.” 23 years old. What have you done?

Here’s the whole mouthful: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (Act). NotionsCapital puts it nicely:

The PATRIOT construction is an obvious “contrived acronym” or “backronym,” a “reverse engineered acronym” where a desired word is chosen as an acronym and filled in, often with clumsy and impossible-to-remember designations. In this case, some of those words — Intercept, Obstruct — have connotations that would have given hints of future controversy if anyone was paying attention.  A month after 9/11, nobody was. 

The perils of backronyming deserve their own post. We all remember (unless you were that couple sitting in front of me who walked out) the part in Fahrenheit 9/11 where the Congressman talks about how “nobody” actually read the Patriot Act. This, to be certain, is an exaggeration, but backronyming is powerful. For instance, who wants to say they’re against something called The DREAM Act?

But, for proof that lightning doesn’t strike twice, NotionsCapital tells of Cylke’s other main contribution to political rhetoric: Bush Country Ketchup, offered during 04 as an alternative to using Heinz (remember that Kerry’s wife is a ketchup heiress).

I advise you to drop by bushcountryketchup.com, which features an odd recap of the 04 election in broken English. An excerpt:

But too scare America failed. All ultimately determine, experts say, 68 electors three key states – Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. In the first two while leading Kerry.

Every time Kerry opens a jar of ketchup, his wife, Teresa, as a joke wits, gets a cent. If Bush is married to a Texas oil, the wife of Kerry – the owner of Crown Empire sauces and seasonings. So the question of allegiances often sounds like – you for oil or ketchup? Nobody will be surprised if it turns out that the Kremlin preferred to oil and do not like ketchup.

Nobody will be surprised, guys.

The syntax is cleared up for a list of the top ten reasons to use this condiment. There is plenty to find amusing there, but this one is my favorite:

3. By supporting Bush Country in 2004, we will be able to ”relish” in four more
years of W and leave the Democrats in a pickle.

It turns out that BCK was too “spicy,” as this article puts it, for mainstream adoption, mostly due to its label. Yes, that’s John Kerry being trampled by an elephant. The ketchup has faded into obscurity. But don’t cry for Chris Cylke; a LinkedIn profile shows he is currently “Director, Congressional & Public Affairs at U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

Meanwhile, George is sorting out his legacy. So I know what all of you, the people who want to keep George W. Bush and thoughtfulness in two separate parts of your brain, I know what you’re thinking: his ghost writer said that, or Laura did, or he’s faking it, or it’s too little too late anyway – by the way, there are plenty of other regrets to have about the PATRIOT Act.

But to you I say, when did you get so cynical? And how do you deal with Bush and Karl Rove’s “book-off”?

Nobody I know has read or absorbed more history than Karl. I say that with confidence because I’ve tried to keep up. A few years ago, Karl and I squared off in a book reading contest. I jumped out to an early lead. Then Karl accused me of gaining an unfair advantage by selecting shorter works.

That feels like familiar territory, I grant you. But –

From that point forward, we measured not only the number of books read, but also their page count and total lateral area. By the end of the year, my friend had dusted me in all categories. The final tally was 110 to 95 in books, 40,347 to 37,343 in pages, and 2,275,297 to 2,032,083 in total square inches.

George Bush, the President who famously didn’t read newspapers, is a nerd.

I need to go lie down and think about that for a minute. 

Credit Due

Congratulations to Emma Stone, Fuzzy English Princess, for her Golden Globe nomination for Easy A.

Those of you who don’t know, the Golden Globes are given by a group called the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which is exactly what it sounds like. I am very pleased that they made this modern-day Hester Prynne a recipient of praise. The last time I saw this many old European men embrace teen sexuality, I was at Space Discotheque in Florence, 2004.

So yay Emma. You were also good in the zombie movie. I kind of love you.

Pulling Wool

Yesterday’s Merriam-Webster word of the day was “woolgathering.” If you are woolgathering, you are daydreaming. This started because people used to go through fields that sheep had passed through and gather any small tufts of wool left on bushes and branches. Watching someone do this from afar, he or she probably seemed to be drifting aimlessly, like the one girl on the soccer team who’s singing to herself and collecting acorns and almost gets offended when the ball drops in for a visit.

But this struck me because “wool” is also slang for girls, at least to a group of charming hooligans in my English class last year. When I first heard them talk about “pulling wool” I asked them what they meant. “Like getting chicks,” they said. “But why do you call it wool?”

Now I knew that this was kind of a daring question for me to ask, because I figured the answer had to do with pubic hair (slang dictionaries confirm this). But the boys replied completely straight-faced that there was no real reason; somebody’s brother had just made it up one day, or something.

So I include it now as an example of how the female genitalia, even when it makes itself into the language, often does so anonymously. I just don’t see those guys using the word as much as they did if they were thinking, each time, about hair.

Vagina

Vagina comes from Latin. Its original use was to refer to a sheath or sheath-like objects. Etymonline.com suggests that perhaps the original vagina was made from a split piece of wood.

Wiktionary (and I’m sure you know ’tis the season to donate to the Wiki folks) gives us some vaginal Latin fun:

Mitte gladium in vaginam.
Put the sword into its sheath.
Gladium vāgina proripere.
To draw a sword from the sheath hastily.

We’ve all been there.

And then this quotation:

  • From the Gallic War by C. Julius Caesar (XLIV)
    Avertit hic casus vaginam et gladium educere conanti dextram moratur manum, impeditum que hostes circumsistunt.

    This circumstance turns aside his scabbard and obstructs his right hand when attempting to draw his sword: the enemy crowd around him when [thus] embarrassed.

Yeah I mean how many times have you had your right hand up a scabbard and you’re trying to get your sword ready when all these people crowd around you to watch and the moment’s blown.

Medicinenet.com puts it nicely when it says, of the sword and scabbard analogy, “Love and war, it would seem, have been connected in the minds of people for millennia.” But if you think a little more deeply about the possible implications of the scabbard definition, consider that a sword is “naturally” supposed to rest in its scabbard. That’s where it goes. The scabbard serves the sword, and is not much use on its own. The sword can go out and do other things – you know, kill people – and the scabbard waits around to get stuffed again. Scabbards are meant to be sturdy, and yet are usually leather, or a material soft and pliant enough to not damage the sword.

The “utility” aspect really is central, I think, to the basic images involved here. Think about phallic structures – knives, baseball bats, lighthouses – and what they do, versus yonic ones (the female equivalent) – lakes, caves, cauldrons – which have things done to them. Never mind that in childbirth the vagina does something more mindblowing than any part of the male anatomy could muster, or that comparing the clitoris to the penis is like, as The Vagina Monologues would say, comparing a handgun to a semi-automatic. The psychology remains that men do and women are done to.

Imagine if it were reversed. Imagine if the traditional phallus were more like the stake in the ground for a game of horseshoes – stable, sturdy, boring – and the yoni is the band of steel hurtling through the air, latching on to the phallus and then spinning around with a satisfying clanging. Would human history be radically altered?

Pause for a moment, since I am a geek, to consider a moment from Star Wars. Luke grabs his penis (lightsaber) and walks into a giant vagina (cave) only to find out that his father is there waiting for him. So Luke cuts off his dad’s head with his penis. And then he finds out he IS his father. Then he leaves the vagina to go make out with his sister.

Now, M-W pegs the first known use of the word vagina at 1682, which I guess is why we don’t have any Shakespearean vagina references. We do of course have Hamlet putting his head in Ophelia’s lap and saying, “Did you think I meant country matters?” which is a pun that took me about six years to get. By the way, penis, according to the dictionary, comes from the Latin for tail. Considering how “get some tail” is now slang for sheathing one’s sword, I find that confusing.

Merriam-Webster (and can I just say they do a lot of cool wordstuff on their website?) also gives us this official definition of vagina: a canal in a female mammal that leads from the uterus to the external orifice of the genital canal.”

I know. Giddy up, giddy up, let’s go.

This is what leads a woman, in the opening lines of The Vagina Monologues to bemoan the word vagina:

Let’s just start with the word “vagina.” It sounds like an infection at best, maybe a medical instrument: “Hurry nurse, bring me the vagina.” “Vagina.” “Vagina.” Doesn’t matter how many times you say it, it never sounds like a word you want to say. It’s a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. If you use it during sex, trying to be politically correct – “Darling, could you stroke my vagina?” – you kill the act right there.

 Now, I know that penis also is not particularly sexifying. This is why of course slang has stepped in to help us out. But, you tell me – doesn’t it seem like the vagina’s gotten the short end of the slang stick? See right there, the image is phallic. We don’t say you “got the lumpy side of the circle.”

Cock and dick are words which, in various ways, are likely to be heard in everyday speech – don’t get cocky, quit dicking around. Yes, pussy is a word which has non-anatomical uses, but it’s dirtier, isn’t it? If a kid says dick in my classroom and a kid says pussy, I’m more likely to respond to the pussy.

Yes, that’s right. I’m more likely to respond to the pussy.

And men have the advantage of BALLS being an everyday object, so that word is everywhere. Yes, most often balls is used non-sexually, but “balls” as a mild expletive is both fun and pretty harmless. What’s the female equivalent? “Labia!” What’s the equivalent of “go balls deep,” which is safe enough to be the tagline for a major Hollywood film? Or blueballs?

I’m going to go to the Eve Ensler well (yonic image) one more time. No, I am not being paid by Eve Ensler. Yes, I know she is not some be-all and end-all. But if you haven’t done some reading of her stuff, or looked into the work she does and developed your own opinion, you’re missing out. I want you to know the moment of my full conversion came while watching What I Want My Words to Do to You, a documentary about a writing workshop she ran in a prison. So it’s not all just feminism.

Anyway, recently Eve Ensler had a piece published in The Guardian (London paper) for World AIDS Day – what, you didn’t have a party? This was the first paragraph:

Vagina is the most terrifying word, the most threatening word, in any language of any country I have ever been to. Even when the vagina is worshipped in theory, as the yoni is in India, it is denigrated in practice. It is more reviled and feared than words like plutonium, genocide and starvation. In many countries the word for female genitalia is so derogative or disgusting, it cannot be spoken in public. In a few places, there is no word in the language for vagina at all.

It just seems to me that the male anatomy is both more present in our vocabulary and more acceptable. If true, that may be a cause or an effect of our male-centered society. Therefore, a change in language might bring about a change in society. I welcome, in the comments, your additional examples or your challenges to this argument.