“The Chore Wars”

This is an exercise I did with my students early-ish in the semester: our first foray into visual rhetoric and reading images.

Take a few minutes to study the image below. Keep in mind that a photographer (perhaps in consultation with someone else) set up this photograph, arranged its elements in a certain way—and that at least one editor approved it for the cover. In short: it’s not accidental, but intentional. Think for a moment about what those intentions might be, about what’s going on in the photograph. Not to pose a leading question, but: what’s wrong with it?

Let’s start with the weapons, shall we? He’s holding a gun, she’s holding a spear—he’s a James-Bond type (it’s the retro-50s clothing that does it), she’s an Amazon, primitive and aggressive. The mop-spear is also a phallus—where is the base of it? in her crotch—and there are a variety of reasons she might be holding a phallus. We’ll come back to that. The difference in weaponry—a handgun, modern and Western, and a spear, primitive and savage—establishes a power differential: the male, with the more advanced weapon, is dominant.

Notice that he’s also taller than she is. If she stood up, she might be of more-or-less equal height—but she’s not standing up, she’s crouched down (with her legs apart, and her skirt open at the back in a subtly provocative way—but more on the clothes in a moment). Even the baby is taller than she is—and my impulse is to say that it’s a male baby, but the ruffles on the sleeves look a bit feminine. Hard to tell with babies, anyway.

About the baby: why is he holding it? We’re meant to assume, of course, that this is a family unit: father, mother, baby. Fathers hold babies, sure—though maybe less so in the 1950s, which the clothing is meant to evoke, especially the woman’s pleated skirt and “housework heels” and hairstyle—who mops dressed up like that, and with (muted) red lipstick?——at any rate, why is he holding the baby? There are two possibilities, I think: either to protect it from the Amazon Woman, or to hold it hostage. I find the latter more convincing—the baby-prison is on his side of the room, after all—but the baby’s neutral (indeed, resigned and somewhat disconcerting) facial expression makes it hard to decide.

Let’s come back to the phallus. By the way, I’m using “phallus” instead of “penis” because a phallus is a symbol, and a penis is an organ. They’re intricately related, of course, but she’s not holding an actual penis, just the symbol of one—a symbol of power and generative capacity and perhaps the capacity for violence (and, according to the psychoanalytic theorists, a symbol for the symbolic). Why is she holding it? Has she stolen it from the man, or—since, according to the logic of 1950s division of domestic labor, the mop is properly the woman’s—has she discovered that she also possesses a phallus with which to challenge the man’s phallus? And he’s not even holding a phallic gun, not a shotgun or an assault rifle or even a big fucking Dirty Harry .44 Magnum—he’s holding a tiny little Beretta .22 short-barreled pistol, and he looks nervous, like he’s never actually fired it before, and maybe it doesn’t even have live ammo in it, maybe it’s shooting blanks—does that kid really look like him, after all? (I didn’t go down this road in class—I asked my students why she was holding a phallus, and let them make suggestions, none of which involved the male’s tiny gun.)

Now for the mop as mop, and not spear or phallus. Where is the mop water? In the bucket? No, on the floor. Spilled, by the looks of it, and it’s also excessively clean—so she hasn’t actually been mopping yet—and who mops by dumping water on the floor, anyway? People who don’t know how to mop, that’s who. I’m trying to suggest that the image is suggesting that she’s not very good as a housekeeper, but that might be a stretch.

But there is water all over the floor. Where is it? Under the woman. What do women’s bodies do? They leak. (This gets a reaction from my students, even—especially?—the female ones.) What color is the bucket? Red. So: not water, menstrual blood. (Another reaction from the students, and maybe from you, too.) Why is there menstrual blood all over the floor? I don’t know. Nothing good, probably.

In class, one of my students pointed out the white suds on the bucket—but here, I’ll have to do it. White substance, vessel containing menstrual fluid… well, you can figure it out.


Day 195: Make a snowball.

Originally scheduled for Thursday, July 14 — motherfucking Bastille Day, that was.

I went outside, holding the deck of cards. Once, we’d shuffled them together — before you were gone — and earth had fallen from our fingers, and clouds and thunder filled the sky.

It was hot, outside. It has been hot for a long time. The sun was not yet up, and the heat was already oppressive, stagnant and heavy and thick.

I held the cards in my hand, and thought of snow. I thought of you, and the time we held the cards, our fingers moving together, shuffling, the earth falling from our hands, the clouds and the thunder and the howling wind.

Before you were gone.

I held the cards, but I was afraid to make them move: it had been so long since I’d taken them out, so long since I’d tried their magic, so long since I’d felt there was any point in trying. I stood, in the rising heat, looking without looking at anything in particular, my mind wandering — it was too hot to think — wandering through memories of you, and memories of a time when it was cold, when the world was blanketed in snow.

The heat became tangible, reified, and I ceased to be myself.


When I came back to myself, I was lying in the garden, and the world was blanketed in snow. The cards were scattered all about me. Whether I — or the cards — had conjured the snow, or whether I had wandered out of myself, in a fugue state, until the heat broke and winter came on, I never knew. I suppose I could have asked, but whom would I have asked? Who was left?

I rolled onto my knees, and staggered to my feet. The sun was high and clear, but gave no warmth.

I bent down, took a handful of snow, formed it into a ball, and threw it at the place where you should have been standing — where once you stood, while we watched the storm we’d called forth, and were afraid.

Then I went inside, poured a glass of wine, and faded away.

(Apologies to Charles Williams.)

Day 189: [Read Habakkuk on the toilet]

“Don’t waste the 4 minutes and 22 seconds (on average) you will spend on the toilet. Read the much-neglected Old Testament Book of Habakkuk instead, and try and improve yourself.”

Habakkuk is an odd book. The one verse from it I’ve ever heard quoted is: “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). That verse is always taken out of context, though, as almost all verses from the Old Testament are — and it’s almost unavoidable, really, because so much of the Old Testament is unremittingly bizarre.

Habakkuk is, like most of the Prophets, full of blood and thunder, death and destruction, wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s also not really clear to me what the occasion of the death and destruction in Habakkuk is: there’s blood and violence, but there’s also drunkenness and foreskins.

So, here’s the context for 2:14:

Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity! Behold, is it not of the LORD of hosts that the people shall labour in the very fire, and the people shall weary themselves for very vanity? For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness! Thou art filled with shame for glory: drink thou also, and let thy foreskin be uncovered: the cup of the LORD’s right hand shall be turned unto thee, and shameful spewing shall be on thy glory.

Really, verse 14 seems really out-of-place, and it’s not at all surprising to me that preachers who are on about the “knowledge of the glory of the Lord covering the earth” are less excited about explaining what that has to do with cities founded in blood, full of drunken carousers waving their foreskins around.

Speaking of foreskins, does anybody remember the part in Exodus when Zipporah hastily circumcises her son and throws the foreskin at Moses’ feet — or maybe his genitals? — so that God won’t kill him (him being Moses)? That’s a good one.

I’m also a fan of the story at the end of Judges about the Levite who allows his concubine to be raped to death, and then cuts her into pieces and sends them to various tribes to incite the Israelites into killing all the Benjaminites. Oh, and when Elisha had two bears kill forty-two kids for calling him ‘bald-head’? Classic.

What point was I trying to make? I’m not sure. I guess it’s this: read the Old Testament, sure, but only if you’re willing to appreciate the truly bizarre and discomfiting moments — of which there are many — without attempting to fit them into some preconceived framework of meaning.

I mean, the Bible is full of sex and violence and intrigue and things that make you say “what the fuck” — and none of that is as much fun if you’re trying to pretend it isn’t there.

Day 188: Get a life coach.

What the hell does a life coach do?

According to the Wikipedia — or, more specifically, to a Wikipedia article with “multiple issues” — really, the thing is pretty unreadable, but you get that sometimes when anybody can edit a thing —— anyway, “life coaching is a practice that helps people identify and achieve personal goals,” and life coaches do this “using a variety of tools and techniques.”

Well, glad we cleared that up.

Life coaches aren’t therapists, they aren’t counselors, they aren’t psychologists or psychiatrists or psychoanalysts: they don’t bother with the past, apparently, only with the future — though how that’s possible I don’t know, since dealing with goals for the future has to take into account where one is in the present, and an (honest) assessment of one’s present has to involve looking at how one arrived where one is, which involves dealing with the fucking past.

Life coaches are bullshit artists, then: con men and snake oil salesmen, whose goal is to make people feel good about themselves without actually changing their lives — because actual change in the sucker’s client’s life might make the life coach obsolete — so that the people give the life coaches money.

Of course, I’m basing this less-than-flattering assessment on one section of a poorly-written Wikipedia article. Maybe I should see what some actual, professional life coaches have to say.

LifeCoach.com bills itself as “the way to effortless success” — and, as anyone who’s ever done anything worth doing knows, “effortless success” does not exist.

Bill Blalock promises an “ongoing partnership that helps clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives” (emphasis his) — that’s a sentence that doesn’t really say anything. He does acknowledge that the coaching process might initially be “discomforting and even painful,” and that it can be “difficult” to talk about one’s “issues.” On the other hand, before becoming a life coach, he “held management positions at Frito Lay, Inc., Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc, Ernst & Young LLP and Cadbury Schweppes” — and one should never trust middle management.

I cruised Tina Ferguson’s site for a few minutes — it’s pinker than I like — but I have no snarky comments to make, because I can’t make sense of anything she’s saying. Alright, I do have one snarky comment: what kind of successful life coach asks her readers to send her money to blow at Starbucks? I mean, if any of you want to send me money to spend on beer coffee, that would be awesome — but if I was already charging people to spout bullshit at them, asking for tips for the bullshit I gave away for free would be tacky.

So, I think I stand by my initial assessment. Life coaches: people who take your money and make you do stupid things that aren’t really going to do you any good.

Why would I want one? Isn’t that why I have this stupid Book?

Day 180: Pretend to be a tourist.

tourist, n. One who makes a tour or tours; esp. one who does this for recreation; one who travels for pleasure or culture, visiting a number of places for their objects of interest, scenery, or the like.

I recently read Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s “limited series” comic book, Planetary — and someday I’ll write a post about it — which is about an organization named Planetary, and specifically Planetary’s three-person field team, who are “Archeologists of the Impossible.”

Why do I bring this up? Because I am a tourist of the improbable.

Well, a tourist of the mildly improbable. Maybe even just a tourist of the coincidental, or slightly odd.

The thing about this sort of tourism is that there are improbable/coincidental/odd things everywhere you go, especially if your definitions of those terms are inclusive (not to say capacious), and if you’re willing to make much of out of very little. Also, because it’s tourism, it’s perfectly acceptable for an initial burst of enthusiastic interest to taper off quickly through indifference and into total forgetfulness (which has the added advantage of allowing one to notice the same oddity several times, without remembering that one has already noted it).

Today has, so far, been a good day for coincidences and oddities. As I was walking to campus, I met a one-armed man on the sidewalk: he was lying on the ground, looking sullen, refusing to move. I took him back to my office, and strung him up by his good arm. Then I took a picture.

My discovery raises, of course, a number of questions.

How did a Lego ninja end up on the sidewalk? How did he lose his arm? Where did his head-wrap go? Is he always so angry? Is whoever abandoned him on the sidewalk going to regret it, come back, find him gone, and fall into a weeks-long fit of uncontrollable weeping? Most importantly: Is he still going to be hanging on my corkboard when I come back to the office, or is he going to climb down, hide, wait patiently, and then kill me when I least expect it?

That last one seems really unlikely, which is why I’m the most nervous about it. One doesn’t devote one’s life to being a tourist of the improbable without seeing some improbable things, and an unsuspecting grad student being killed by a one-armed Lego ninja is pretty improbable, but not anywhere near the most improbable thing I’ve ever seen.

Maybe I should take him down and release him into the wild before something bad happens.

Day 151: Everyone has a favorite dinosaur.

“Go to your local natural history museum and make sure yours is properly displayed.”

This one prompted an existential crisis: do I actually have a favorite dinosaur?

After Jurassic Park, the raptor is everyone’s — and by everyone, I mean males in the early-20s to late-30s demographic — favorite, and so, as much as I like them, I have to pick a different favorite dinosaur. Raptors are too mainstream.

What about T-Rex? T-Rex is pretty awesome, especially this T-Rex. Also, I have a stuffed green T-Rex — “green” is probably redundant, because it seems like all T-Rexes (which is an incorrect pluralization, I know) are green — anyway, I have a stuffed T-Rex from my infancy that is still around, on loan to Jack. T-Rex is a cool dinosaur, but even more mainstream than raptors, really. Maybe they’re so mainstream they’re underground again? Not the ones that have been excavated, obviously, but the ones that haven’t been found yet.

Apatosaurus is pretty damn big, which is cool, but I’m not sure how I feel about having an herbivore as a favorite dinosaur. Vegetarians are cool and all, but not violent enough. Triceratops is a much more bad-ass herbivore, and I wouldn’t say this to a Triceratops’s face, but an herbivore is an herbivore, and anything that doesn’t eat animals is not quite good enough.

I’m hanging out with Lorna and my brother and his wife, drinking Pimm’s cups, and I asked the room at large whether people had favorite dinosaurs. Lorna said no, but Celia’s favorite is the Triceratops — also Brontosaurus (Apatosaurus) and Stegosaurus — and Jeff’s is raptors in general. Jeff also told me, in the blunt manner that a younger brother ought, that I was a dirty fucking hipster for not just embracing my liking of raptors. He’s right, really: they’re awesome, and T-Rex are awesome, and if I didn’t have a perverse need to not like things that everyone else likes, I’d have no problems. The whole point of this blog, though, is that I have problems. Stupid problems, and strong opinions about ridiculous things like water and peeling potatoes — I admit it, I’m well aware of it, but that’s how it is.

I’m not going to get any sleep tonight. Existential crisis not resolved. Life is terrible.

Damned dinosaurs.

Day 148: Leave a note on someone’s car windshield.

Notes that get left on car windshields are always mean – passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive, or frighteningly violent – and I didn’t want to leave that kind of note. What to leave, though? Something “affirming,” but not too affirming.

“You’re doing a fine job. Keep it up.”

My friend Nathan and I say this to each other. If I remember correctly, it’s something his boss or a co-worker used to say to him – or maybe something he used to say? At any rate, it’s both affirming and sarcastic. The adjective changes: “adequate” is my favorite, I think, and occasionally one of us will use a “terrible” or a “pathetic” or something like that. We also only use it when the other is doing something really simple, like putting forks on the table or making coffee or just walking down the hall.

I made nine or ten of these. I put one on Carl – Carleton Livingstone Butterworth Goldsmith I, Duke of Somerset – who lives with my brother and his wife. I left a few on random windshields around Hampden, but windshields got boring pretty quickly.

I left one in a copy of Machine of Death in Atomic Books. I left one with (not as, because that’s not right) the tip for our waitress at 13.5% Wine Bar, where we drank beer instead of wine, because bottles were half off, and they had good bottles (I had a Brewdog Hardcore IPA and an Orkney Skullsplitter; my brother had a Petrus Aged Pale Ale and a St. Bernardus something-or-other). I left one on a bicycle – a nice vintage Peugeot – in front of a Rite-Aid (when I came back out of the Rite-Aid, the owner of that bicycle was preparing to ride off; the note was gone, so he’d obviously seen it, but it would have ruined the effect to have said anything).

I have one left, which I’m going to deploy somewhere in NYC tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.