Thursday, September 29, 2005

Atop Maslow’s Hoary Peaks, or Critical Approaches to the Self-Congratulatory Production of Culture

As I write this, I am seated at a folding table next to my friend Ezra in a lecture hall at the DePaul University student center, participating in the Ephemera Festival, a celebration of D.I.Y (do it yourself) culture.

Ez and I are fidgeting in our chairs, munching on veggie sticks and passing notes back and forth, as we struggle to endure the inflated, garbled, address delivered by our Keynote speaker, a professor of social justice here at the school.

The upshot of his lecture you could probably guess. He makes the usual (erroneous) allusions to all the diversity and individuality represented in the room, pats us on the back for being “cultural workers” and celebrating our home publications as revolutionary opposition to dominant media, traces our roots, not surprisingly, right back to our pamphleteering, revolutionary forefathers.

Ya da ya da.

Give me a break. And when you’ve done that, stick around to hear my thoughts on what zine publication (or craft making, or playing in a band for that matter) is really about.

Unpopular a stance as it may be, I am willing to stand up and say that at root, there is little to nothing revolutionary about this kind of cultural production, that it might in fact, be a pure manifestation of status-quo preservation in action. No hate or disrespect to my many creative friends, least of all to my own call-for-validation creative endeavors, but the time seems nigh for a little break from our “revolution” in order to examine how and why we create.

Some 70 years ago Psychologist Abraham Maslow first formulated his now famous pyramid model for human development called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Maslow posits that in order to become a healthy, productive member of society, a person must pass through stages where certain needs are met in. One cannot progress to the next stage until satisfied at the previous station. At the base of the ladder are the primal needs of sustenance then safety. Once these have been secured, a person can effectively cultivate relationships based on love and belonging, which lead to self-esteem building. The final phase is one of self-actualization in which a person is able to positively intellectualize her existence and see herself as a worthwhile entity, orbiting in complex relation to other like entities.

I know little to nothing about the field of psychology but the model makes a good deal of sense. While creativity happens at all levels of the hierarchy (I studied the history of art in school for a good number of years so need no one regale with fantastic stories of tormented, impoverished geniuses or eccentric visionaries), I will confidently argue that while a creative spirit may burn inside the homeless drug addict or the exhausted factory worker, these demographics do not constitute a sizeable (or visible, I should say) slice of the cultural production pie.

Why is this? To be painfully, childishly Marxist, fighting, I mean really fighting for survival leaves all but the most exceptional people with little time or energy left over for creative endeavors. Furthermore, having to claw so desperately at that Maslowian hierarchy might mean for some it takes longer to climb. It might not even occur to a person that creative avenues for self-expression exist when one is stuck somewhere along the way to actualizing this self. Of course people who face incredible obstacles manage to create, often resulting in work that is unspeakably raw and powerful. Let me be absolutely clear that my aim is not to myopically preclude or elide these voices from the cannons. Rather, I am choosing to focus on the sectors of cultural production where creative expression is the rule, not the exception.

Who then is making most of the music, the art, the writing? Go take a nice long gaze in the mirror.
I will.
It’s people just like me.

Just how diverse was the representation in the conference room that morning? In terms of subject matter treated in the overwhelming spread of home publications, impressive: travelogues, cookbooks, poetry, fiction, music writing, agit-prop on topics spanning mental health, environmental and prison activism. Nice spread. But (not surprisingly) what did we have in common? The usual suspects: mostly white, “counter culture”, and almost certainly college educated (if not “more”).

We all shared a quiet camaraderie that functions on several levels. There is the obvious and self-congratulatory level at which we are attempting to hack out space for personal narrative and alternative expression in a so-called increasingly “streamlined” culture of corporate media conglomarization Beneath this thin veneer, however, is the true nature of our cadre: We create because we’ve been taught that we can. Moreover, that we must.

The Ephemera Festival, like my constellation of friends, like climate at the small liberal arts college, contains a striking proportion of creative types. While the details of our lives obviously vary, for the most part we are all white, middle class kids who were raised in homes where, despite the usual gamut of struggles and eccentricities, we were fed, clothed, loved, nurtured and educated. Somehow along the way we picked up the notion that college was not just a place for Frat parties and honor society networking opportunities. It was a place to immerse oneself in world of ideas (and the occasional/not so occasional whiskey ablutions). While we worked hard, both at our studies and paying our ways, we enjoyed the comforting presence of familial and socio-cultural safety nets waiting (though sometimes distantly) beneath our stumbling feet. We learned that lives not lived in the pursuit of knowledge are somehow incomplete. To slog through the drudgery of existence is insufficient- one must wrestle with the world’s great tangle of mystery, and preferably, leave some relic of this struggle in plastic form.

Plainly, whether conscious choice or magnetic gravitation, I have ended up in a section of society that places an incredibly high premium on contemplative cultural practice and creative production. Like many people I know, I do not write, make art or play music because I really think I am changing the world. I maintain creative projects because at this stage in the self-actualization game, it’s what’s expected of me. I am primed to confidently assert that I have something to say and armed with a clunky arsenal of painful self-awareness, a modest but undeniably elite grasp of the history of ideas, aesthetic movements and all sorts of cultural arcana, I’m going to cough it out.

But it’s not all a rosy picture of positive reinforcement, mind you. Beyond the Carrot and Stick, lurks the Discipline and Punish. Consider it a sort of Foucaultian panopticism: if I fail to create, well then, I’m out of the club. Where I ended up, these are the rules for how one is expected to engage with the world. And the invisible spirit of ideas and ghosts of class, like the engines of capitalism themselves, demand results.

There is no moral to this story. Not even an embittered call to trade in our self-indulgent projects (from the hackneyed to the prophetic) for posts in shantytown AIDS clinics worldwide (though is the undeniably more noble path). And fear not gang, we make such amazing things! We rock, we move to tears, we open discourses, we stimulate minds and most impressively (potentially imperialist value judgment fast approaching), we do this all INSTEAD of kicking the shit out of each other and robbing convenience stores.

Most of us will accomplish little more with our endeavors than massively enriching our own lives and the lives of those close to us. But Goddamn we are incredibly lucky to have the resources and the time to reflect ponderously and gloriously on all our heartbreaks and tribulations, our pain and our elation.

Actually, maybe that is a moral after all.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Comments on Comment Erasure

This blog has been getting spammed by fake comments that offer some lame congradulatory encouragement following by stock advertisement plugs for anything from energy drinks to credit cards. This is a gross, creepy violation of peoples' reading/writing space and I've since tried to activate a blocker that will ask commenters to decode a fuzzy looking word before posting. In the meantime I've been deleting the insidious ads. They have no place here. Or anywhere really...

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Taking Jalen in Arms

I’m not comfortable with the idea of having children. Not just me having children (this, clearly is a bad idea) but anyone having children really. My parents and more conventional amongst my friends are hoping this is bitter, immature phase I’ll grow out of. I probably will too, coinciding perfectly no doubt with the onset of infertility. In the meantime, I’m spending my prime childbearing years regarding the business of procreation irksome if not deeply, cosmically wrong.

Ironic thing is, I like children and I do alright with them. I used to be one afterall and a frustrated, sensitive, poorly behaved one at that. Childhood is hard and of course, as well all know, it never gets any easier. Since it never gets any easier, sometimes we need help from those who have yet to figure that out.

Therefore I have a new job working in an after school program at a charter school in Bucktown. The hours are paltry and the pay pitiful but I think that like most self-absorbed, twenty-something hipsters I only stand to become a more worthwhile person by taking care of children.

“This is what’s missing from my life, all of our lives,” I told Radhika with a weirdly earnest enthusiasm a few weeks ago “We’ve got to get beyond ourselves, you know? Little kids need help, they need you. It’ll be a nice change from all the usual worrying over where the next party, or pint, or regrettable make-out is coming from.”

It’s funny how you have to keep learning the things you already know. The other day I experienced a concrete moment of that abstract but powerful notion of being needed. Not surprisingly, it took a five year old to make me feel more worthwhile than I’d felt in a very long time.

Jalen was the first kid I met at work actually and based on our initial interaction I should have known he would prove a force to contend with. The first day of this newly minted program was complete an utter pandemonium as two hundred kids raced through the gym shrieking, flinging back-packs and spraying hot-cheetos crumbs everywhere while us frenzied teachers, working off various lists which of course didn’t match up, attempted to assert order. Amidst the chaos, I got a desperate tug on the hem of my shirt.

“Teacher,” this little kid wheezed, “I’m going to throw up!”
Now, as the eldest of six kids, a former day-care employee, and a particularly squeamish individual, I know that puke is nothing to fuck around with. Drop everything to take care of puke. This is a rule of mine.

“Come on honey.” I said making some vague “outdoors” gesture to the nearest harried adult. I put my hand on his shoulder and led him to the nearest exit. I figured we should head towards nature, but damn concrete jungle, there wasn’t much to be found. Just a parking lot. I guided Jalen over to the church next door, sporting a few patches of lawn.
“Let it on out.” I said stoically as if the chore were mine not his.
Jalen coughed theatrically, bent over and spit out a slimy strand of cheetos-colored drool.
“I think I feel better now.” He said.

Crisis averted. What I didn’t quite realize at the time but understand in retrospect is that in all likelihood Jalen didn’t need to throw up at all. Whether he knew it or not, like any hyperactive kindergartener, shit, like any regular kindergartener, he just needed to get outside for a little break.

Over the following weeks I got a better sense of Jalen’s (in)famous condition at the school. Adorable and loving, he’s also clearly ADD and very high maintenance. He acts out, can’t concentrate, and seems to get in a lot fights with the other kids. Why a parent would stick this five year old child with special needs in an after school program, five days a week ON TOP of a normal, grueling 8-3 school day is beyond me. But that’s not really my business. My business is taking care of Jalen, and when I find the chance, the rest of the kids too.

Jalen’s week was off to a bad start last Monday. He arrived in the gym for after school, already in tears. It took me a few attempts to decipher the blubbering but I managed to ascertain that he’d gotten a red dot in class that day for kicking a classmate.

“My momma’s gonna whoop me.” He howled piteously, stroking my arm in a desperate, meaningless motion.
“Sounds like you made a pretty poor decision today” I suggested consolingly, adopting the school’s model of teaching responsibility. He nodded into my ribs. I did my best to get him excited about Spanish club that afternoon but it was a tenuous peace- Jalen was barely hanging in there. Shortly before dismissal time around 6 pm, the poor kid, exhausted and overwhelmed reached a meltdown point.

I’m not sure what set it off, but it happened, inconveniently enough as I was trying to organize the kids and their belongings in a line by the classroom door. Seems he remembered he was going to be disciplined when he got home and got hit with a fresh wave of fear and aggravation. Jalen’s sobs grew louder and more frantic until, eventually, I had this tiny little boy clinging to my legs like a barnacle, bawling inconsolably. At this point he was out of control and way beyond reprimanding or the usual tricks of concocting special helper jobs or errands for him to run.

“What’s wrong with him?” Another little kid asked, clearly concerned by her classmate’s histrionics.
“He’s had a long day.” I replied gently, trying to pry him off my knees. It was a crazy moment and I let Mr. Miller escort the class out while I dealt with Jalen the only way I knew how.

I took him in my arms.

I held Jalen, shuddering and sputtering, in my arms for a few minutes and rubbed his back while he cried it out. Eventually the tears began to subside.
“I think you need a nice dinner and some rest.” I told him. I offered to play intercessor and suiggest to mom that she go easy when it came to the Red Dot. Sniffling, he told me it was ok; he would be fine on his own.

Hand in hand, we returned the mug of Pencils to Ms. Morales’ classroom and went upstairs. By the time we got outside he’d recovered and bounded off, disappearing into the swarm of kids on the school steps.

Something about this encounter got to me. My life right now, I’d say could is marked by a distinct lack of being needed. I’m not even complaining here about what I need , but more of what I can be poised to give others. Sure there are the usual friends and family, but as weird as it sounds, I crave the desperate, middle of the night drunken phone calls. I always fall in love with boys I hope will let me take care of them and it never pans out. Lovers and friends can't always validate you, you can't force them to call on you for help. The next best thing is sublimating, finding creative, unexpected ways to feel useful, depended upon, loved.

I’m sure Jalen doesn’t even remember how badly he needed me briefly there that evening. And that’s fine. He’s just a little kid. In a weird way, I reflect upon those moments as ultimately being more about me than him.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Bokbunja Berries and Chicago PD Blues

Ladies and gents, every word of the story you are about to read is true. It’s difficult to believe, and trust me, even harder to write since I’m be attempting to weave together not one, but several coterminous adventures. Time is the best narrator; the stunned subject is a paltry second. In any case, sit back and let me regale you with the facts of how in the span of just two days I became the darling of the windy city wine festival, got paid two sweet bens to get drunk off an exotic Korean wine while I did it, had a tussle with the law that prompted a hysterical breakdown in the heart of Lakeview, and the unbelievable way I managed to clear my name. Like I said, I couldn’t have made this up if I tried.

I’ve got an idea taking shape for a little book called ‘Gig’ in which I’ll tell you all about the ridiculous one-off jobs I’ve taken to eke out this pittance of an existence while keeping the onerous 9-5 life at bay. Beyond my traditional work experience in retail and education, I can, at this point, also list a bizarre, Sedaris-esque host of other colorful positions: costumed dinner party actress, wedding caterer, handler of unfathomably expensive artworks, hocker of designer clothing the list goes on…nothing excitingly bawdy, alas, just weird, random.

Fresh off a gig folding overpriced jeans and telling the Lincoln Park women who love them how great their asses look in ‘em for Colleen S________the jet-set designer/manufacturer from Sonoma, I managed to land another lucky gig pouring wine at the windy city Wine Festival down in Daley center this weekend.

“I’m your woman.” I banged out in my feverish email response to the craigslist posting.
“I’m cute, friendly, can sell anyone anything and what’s more, I know my gewürztraminer from my Shiraz, hell, my Shiraz from my syrah!”

“U got a pic?” came the terse reply not two minutes later.

I sent the guy a picture Lynn took of me in California in my catering uniform, serving up a copy of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory like a tray of hors d'oeuvres. I’m not exactly Bacardi Girl material but I do all right. Shave a girl’s armpits, slap some earrings on her and presto, you’ve got yourself a woman the boys won’t laugh at. It’s amazing.

I spent all day Saturday sweltering in a booth for an importing company based half in the Chicago burbs, half in Seoul S. Korea. They specialize in organic Korean cosmetics, textiles and spirits, most excitingly Korea’s sophisticated soju for the 21st century, a highly alcoholic raspberry wine called Bokbunja. My bosses Michael and Young, laid back chain smokers who guzzled the product openly and frequently didn’t have high expectations. “Turn out’s gonna be low, I bet” Michael shrugged one hour into the day. “Whatever, we’ll just try to get the product out there, hopefully sell a few bottles.”

Oh ye of little faith. The trick to selling, and I mean this in a sincere not a slimy way, is to make people feel good not just about what they’re buying but while they’re shopping. Wine is pretty easy to sell because everyone is self-conscious about knowing too little so they compensate by nervously throwing their money around. Nothing in the world however can be easier than selling wine at a wine festival where people are already feeling good, jolly and drunk.

I repeated my spiel about the wines probably a thousand times, getting good and soused on weird concoctions of Bokbunja and iced tea, Bokbunja and champagne, Bokbunja and anything really, yucking it up with the yuppie chumps all the while. I left that night confident in a job well done. The guys were certainly impressed. “Wish you weren’t moving to California.” Mike said mopping his brow “I’d hire you right now, fly you out to Korea, you’d love it.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

The next day I dawdled over an involved omlette project and ended up racing to work in a fierce hurry. At Belmont I made the unfortunate executive decision to forgo the train, thinking that if I peddled ferociously I could make it down to lake just as fast on my bike. Pre-occupied with fear that tardiness might dash my hopes for a bonus at the end of the night, brain registering only the immediate danger of oncoming traffic, I veered right onto Clark without stopping at the red light. Unlucky mistake. Within an instant a cop was barking at me to pull over.

I have never been pulled over on my bike before. How humiliating. Now I’d really be late. Flushed and sweaty I fidgeted on the curb while this abusive officer P______ harangued me for disregarding the traffic signal and accused me of starting guff with him by not pulling over quick enough. Sunday fucking morning. Everyone else was at church or eating crepes except this asshole, whose idea of “weekend” meant bullying little girls on mauve bikes. Where was this traffic safety hero every time some ornery Chicago motorist consciously tried to run me off the road? I watched him laughing to himself in the car as he wrote up my ticket. When he presented me with the paperwork I asked him calmly why my license wasn’t with it.

“Oh I’m keeping that for bond.”
“Excuse me?”
“That’s right, I’m keeping it for bond.”
“Now hold on just a minute,” I said, aware my voice was getting shrill as my diffident, kiss ass exterior gave way to terror, impotence and panic. I began dialing Donna for a legal consultation.

“I don’t have to wait for your calls.” Sneered the abominable officer P______.
“You at least have to wait for me to get your badge number.” I shot back, trying to threaten him.
Donna instructed me to request something called an I-Bond. But everything was happening too quickly. The cop thrust a piece of paper at me on which he’d scrawled his badge number and then took off-with my license.

I ain’t ashamed to tell you I was so shaken and confused that I burst into violent sobs right there on the corner of Clark and Belmont. Shuddering and blubbering, I paced on the phone with Donna for a good ten minutes before I could manage, still weeping, to heft my bike on the train.

“Why didn’t you just lose him down an alley?” Mike asked when I called to report I was now going to be not just late but really late. “That’s what I would have done.”

Don’t the French have some word for that? The quip you wish you had said that miserably, only comes to you later that night in the shower? If only.

A big glass of chilled Bokbunja was waiting for me when I finally made it to the booth. The ladies in the Fisher nuts booth next door were particularly sympathetic and directed the wind from their neon colored pocket fans my way while I recounted the tale of terrible woe. After an hour or two and several Bokbunja cocktails I managed to regain my cheery composure. A guy from Binny’s came over to tell us we’d blown every other vendor out of the water.

That night Mike said he was sorry he wasn’t authorized to give me a bonus but offered me as “much wine as you can carry.” With a wink, Pete from the Chadon booth even slipped me a bottle of my favorite, the Riche, for good measure. Drunk, staggering under the weight of a dozen clanking bottles, worried my bag would split at the seams like in some moralizing fable, I lumbered back to the train. Despite my earlier interaction with officer P_____the world seemed magical that night and I felt full of grace. I left a bottle of Bokbunja near the coin-spattered guitar case of a lady-busker outside the art museum. “Put it on ice girl!” I called behind me.

This morning I woke up with a bit of a Bokbunja hangover. Supposedly the wine is free of sulfites, a selling point I touted with great enthusiasm but it is rather sugary. Why delay the inevitable I told myself, reheating some two day old coffee I found in the French press on the counter and settling down to tackle the most unpleasant items on my list. I wrote a check to National Education lending corp. with a note apologizing for my overdue payments promising to do better in the future. That done I embarked on a quest to recover my license. An hour of phone calls later no officer in either of the districts controlling that intersection had any trace of my paperwork.

Beaten and weary I resigned myself to fate, hoping when I got to New York this weekend there’d be at least a few bartenders generous enough to accept my paper moving violation and defunct graduate school I.D as proof of existence, advanced youth. I packed my bag and prepared to head into town to claim my bike and go to work.

And then the doorbell rang.

And this folks, is where things get psychedelic.

I peered down the stairs and to my horror saw that Antonia was talking to a cop on our doorstep. “You want Abbyg.?” I heard her asking warily. What now?

I clattered down there and found myself facing none other than officer P______from the day before.
“Yes.” I said curtly.
“Abigail, I came by to bring you this.” He began sheepishly, holding up my license in a plastic sheet.
“Seems you were right about the I-Bond. Since you’re from Michigan you were exempt from our seizure procedures.”
“I’m certainly glad to have it back.” I said, softening now that things were looking up.
“You know,” He continued “I kind of regret writing that ticket. In retrospect, I’m not even positive you had a red light.”

(I did. I certainly did)

“That’s possible. I was in such a rush I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Yeah, well anyway, I’m not going to go to court on this. Arrange a date and they’ll just throw it out. Here’s your license back and I’m sorry for the trouble.”
“Thanks.” I replied. “Glad you caught me I was just on my way out the door.”
“You need a ride anywhere?” he asked, motioning to his squad car parked on our corner. It was an offer too deliciously weird to refuse.

So Officer P_____gave me a lift to the Belmont redline station. On the way we talked about my upcoming trip to New York, his favorite blues bar in Chicago and the hazards of biking in the city. When we got to the station he got out of the car, exchanged a brief word with the lady at the turnstile booth and the gate opened up for me. Officer P____ handed me a piece of paper with the information about my court date, tentatively scheduled for October 28th.
“I put my number on it here.” He said ‘In case you have any questions...”
“...Or you want to get a beer or something.”

(Yep you read that correctly. He was asking me on a date)

“Well thanks a lot offer P______,” I said extending my hand.
“Please” He beamed “Call me Sean.”

The heart is a muscle the size of a fist and the dick is mightier than the pen.

All that remains to close this case is for us to get married I guess.
But I don’t think I’ll call him. I’m sure you understand.

Besides, until I deplete my cache of Bokbunja, I’m so over beer.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

"That's Not Me" Or Body World's Hyperreal Travels Close to Home

This essay is a DRAFT. A Work in progess. I really welcome your comments, sugggestions and edits (you know I really suffer when it comes to spelling, commas and the like...)


Back in 1975 Italian theorist, novelist and social critic Umberto Ecco published the classic essay Travels in Hyperreality . True to the tradition of European intellectuals who just love crossing the ocean to gawk at America’s infinite capacity for tastelessness, Travels reads like an encyclopedic compendium of our country’s entertaining and educational tableaux, Vegas style mini-cities, wax museums, and tacky sites of historic re-creation.

In these garish places, Ecco observed a bizarre, what he feels to be a uniquely American obsession with the production, or rather re-production of authenticity. (A dubious assertion I might interject, especially coming from the sophisticated continent that spent much of the middle ages worshipping reliquaries). It’s as though what is real is not real until it is culturally canonized as such, heralded, paraded, worshipped and most importantly, frozen in time. From costumed interpreters to tromp l’oeil simulacra, we tend to push reality into a realm where truth resides in the “absolute fake.” In this world mere reality is insufficient, eschewed instead for a conscious creation of reality known as the hyperreal.

Last night, at three in the morning, I found myself at the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park viewing Gunther Von Hagan’s much hyped Body Worlds: An Exhibition of Real Human Bodies . The idea of the exhibit, for those unfamiliar, is initially almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around. Preserved through a technology called “plastination” (the term itself intriguing, the process of rendering fake), Von Hagan brings us galleries full of artfully arranged actual human bodies. Stripped of skin, sliced and flayed, the idea is to take viewers on a trip through the most secret, mystifying terrain on earth: our own bodies.

It’s an awesome, gruesome romp indeed, a violent perhaps final iteration of Eccoian Hyperreality. Add to this the museum’s rather surreal decision (wowed by unending demand for Body Worlds) to keep the exhibit open round the clock for its final days in Chicago and you have perhaps the strangest night out imaginable. Bleary-eyed and weak-stomached, myself and several thousand other curious souls elected to spend twenty dollars and two hours in the middle of the night milling through brightly lit galleries examining what were, or had once been, dead human bodies.

Unlike the shellacked specimens in the exhibit, the scientific enlightenment spirit is alive and well. Walls adorned with stirring corporeally oriented quotes from the likes of Rene Descartes, Aurelius Augustinus, William Shakespeare and other famous men, the exhibit environment is meant not only to edify but to inspire and astound. While “The primary goal of body Worlds is health education,” we have clearly come a long way from drab pickled specimens in vitrines. Set against the backdrop of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson the bone and muscle figures become a cast of macabre, elegant characters. There is the chess player hunched in concentration over a game board, his spinal column removed to highlight the cerebral cortex, the dancer ossified in an eternal pirouette of striated grace, the rider-a male perched atop a similarly plastinated galloping steed. Horseman of the Humanist apocalypse our cowboy holds a brain in each skeletal hand, one his own, the other (of astonishingly similar size) belongs to the horse.

Interspersed between the anatomical statues visitors could also marvel at isolated body parts in cases. Ever wonder what a real smoker’s lungs look like? Gallstones? Ovarian Tumors? A Cirrhotic liver? Displayed alongside healthy counterparts these specimens satisfy our curiosity for the aberrant and soothe our pathological tendencies to divide the world into binary categories- normal and abnormal, right and wrong.

While making no overt moralizing gestures, it is interesting to note Body World’s sometimes clunky mix of cold science and divine rhapsody. Consider the Origins of Life section, a corner of the exhibit walled off by flowing white curtains. More temple than circus ring, the room contains embryos and fetuses from every point of gestation and most impressively, a plastinated woman, 8-months pregnant, arranged in the classic posture of a reclining nude. Belly opened to reveal the baby she carried, she is the noble sight of a dual tragedy. Visitors file through slowly through the room in an awed, glossy silence. In contrast to the rest of the exhibit, which uses no sound effects, here a track of ambient twinkling chimes wafts through the air. Everything is death except for life. Kidney stones, constipation, artery blockages-these are things that happen to the unlucky or the imprudent. Babies on the other hand, well these are something special.

It was an unsettling form of resurrection. To X-ray a live dancer might be interesting but nowhere near as thrilling as reviving the dead. Truly, these bodies needed to have been dead in order to be reanimated as innards on parade. Inescapable when considering Body World’s appeal is the fact that this is not a peek into the functioning of the body, but rather, bodies once functioning. Perhaps it was this inability to account for the body in time that created a critical disjunct in my appreciation of Body World’s exciting reality factor. I just couldn’t shake what I’d initially dismissed as a girly, squeamish reaction: the simple insistence that “That’s not me.”

Is this really a crisis of abjection though? I lingered in a moment of pure aesthetic pleasure at the human arm comprised of nothing but a ghostly crimson network of arterial meanderings. The infinite complexity of tendrils and fibers floated in the air like an Andy Goldsworthy on water-supremely delicate, impossibly impermanent. It’s not that the body is particularly gross; it just made very little sense from Body' World's stark perspective. I peered in particular confusion at the shriveled disembodied male and female genitals. I admit it’s been a little while but I remember reality as distinctly more sexy. “Is this really what we use to do it?” I wondered. I hate to betray the scientific tradition to which we owe an undeniable debt but really, whatever happened to singing the body electric?

At once too real and not real enough, Body Worlds may enchant but let’s not forget all else that does. On my way out I paused to sleepily flip through the guestbook. The comments ranged from the standard “Fantastic! Very informative!” to the touching (in painstaking, sloping child’s print) “I leanrdt so much abut the body” to the comical “Usually at this time of night I’m looking at sexy bodies at the bar, thanks for another perspective.” While my friend searched for the plastination donation forms I added a hasty line or two of my own:

“…And yet I can’t help but recall all the insides I saw yesterday on the bus, looking up in the bumps and jolts after rereading numerous times just the opening line of Theodore Roethke’s The Waking “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow…”