Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Meaning of Applause: The Popularity of Susan Boyle and Her Public Dream

Last week I received three or four emails in rapid succession, each with a link to a YouTube video. All of the messages said something like “You’ve got to check this out – amazing.” I didn’t check out the video; I get so many messages like that, mostly from students or former students, that I’d have to add a few hours to my days to look at all of them. But these messages weren’t coming from my students – they were coming from friends. Friends who are in their 40’s and 50’s and 60’s. Friends who are not usually susceptible to idiotic Facebook quizzes or chain letters or Jackass-like stunt videos, friends who don’t send me dumb or time-wasting attachments. After yet another email from another reliable source, I finally clicked on the link.

Like forty seven million others, what I saw was Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” from Les Miserables. She’s a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, and the video shows, in what seems to be its entirety, her appearance: a short backstage interview, a brief interaction with the show’s panel of judges, and then her rendition of “Dream.” It concludes with the reactions of those judges after Boyle performs.

Several things are remarkable about the video. First is the disdain Boyle is shown by at least one of the judges, as well as members of the audience who are panned by the camera as Boyle answers a few initial questions from Simon Cowell, the most visibly cynical of the panel. It seems obvious that Boyle is being perceived as a joke contestant, one of the by-now familiar losers who provide comic relief on much-watched programs like American Idol. The viewing audience enjoys laughing at these deluded wannabes, seems to find a good amount of glee in mocking their off-key attempts to find fame and fortune.

Susan Boyle – 47 years of age, plain, dressed the way your aunt might at a cousin’s wedding – does herself no favors by strutting onto the stage, forgetting the word “villages,” swiveling her hips, and – perhaps out of nervousness or a natural joie de vivre – momentarily vamping it up onstage. Cowell asks “what’s the dream?” and Boyle, without hesitating, responds that she wants to be a successful singer. When asked why that dream hasn’t been realized sooner – a moment in which it is clear that Cowell is setting her up, in front of the audience, who can see, they believe, exactly why the dream has been unrealized – she responds, simply, “I haven’t been given the chance.”

The next remarkable moment comes as Susan Boyle sings the first line of the song. It is instantly obvious – instantly, from the first note – that the woman can sing. Members of the audience spontaneously begin to applaud, and within ten seconds – that's literally all it takes to turn the tide of doubt that had built, just as quickly, when Boyle first hit the stage – the audience is on its feet. The camera takes turns highlighting the reaction of the judges, who one-by-one are shown jaws dropping, eyebrows raising, then smiling and clapping with delight – and showing Boyle, who appears confident and at ease, immersed in the song. She easily hits a high note, which sends the audience into a louder and more sustained ovation. Eventually we see Cowell sigh with pleasure, which may make us almost want to forgive his earlier assessment of this contestant.

Like many, I found Boyle’s performance thrilling, beautiful, and inspiring – I’ve watched it several times, and think of it as seven minutes of joy. I also found the follow-up reactions – those that have been published, at any rate – quite interesting. Most seem to focus on the clip as a resounding slap in the face to ageist and “looksist” stereotypes – stereotypes most often, but not exclusively, applied to women. Being 47 and lacking conventional good looks is apparently something many of us can relate to; I concur that the popularity of the video can be, at least in part, attributed to that interpretation – what my students would call the “relateability” factor. A lot of us are too old or too young or too fat or too thin or too short or too tall or too haggard or too uncouth or too uneducated or too this, too that. Most of us, I’d venture, are too something. But what the video represents to me, even more than a refutation of age or appearance stereotyping, is the triumph of the underestimated, the overlooked, the dismissed or easily ignored. It probably came as no surprise to anyone that Boyle claims to have never been given a chance before. She is not someone to whom chances are generally given.

I don’t like reality shows, in part because I believe they are often apt depictions of reality – aspects of reality that I rarely find entertaining. Britain’s Got Talent is, to me, a reality show – those few moments when the audience rolls its eyes, collectively, at Boyle say a lot. But – those moments don’t say it all. We can be a cold, uncaring, cruel people… but as Boyle’s voice hits the eardrums of every listener, the immediate and unanticipated reaction is one of utter surprise, pure pleasure. I’d like to believe that everyone in that room who had dismissed Susan Boyle ten seconds earlier was thinking, in that moment, “I was wrong.” I would like to think that they felt apologetic, that the enthusiasm of their applause was also a request for forgiveness -- and, perhaps, a mass thank-you.

In an age when we are all in danger of being overlooked or dismissed or taken for granted in any number of ways, I believe she makes us feel, for just a moment, a little less alone.

That's my dream, anyway, and I'll dream if for a while longer. And every time I watch Susan Boyle's video clip I'll whisper to her my own private thank you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bird Cemetery

Ten minutes before heading out the door to have brunch with friends, I heard a pop against the large picture window that sits above the central staircase of our house. It sounded like a sharp tap – almost like a fingernail snapping against the window – and it was followed by an almost imperceptible bump. A sparrow had flown into the window and was lying on the deck, wings spread, chest heaving.

In the last twelve months, I have buried two other birds who didn’t survive similar crashes. One was a blue jay who hit the front door and snapped its neck. When I first saw it, the adult jay was splayed on its belly, brilliant blue wings perpendicular to its body. It looked like an avian savior on the cross, and it gave a great, slow-motion heave of its wings. I thought it was alive, and shouted out to Leigh that it was okay. It wasn’t okay; after that last valiant gesture, it died. The hummingbird may not have hit a window; Leigh found it on the porch, possibly the victim of a neighborhood cat or perhaps having succumbed to its own super-fast heart rate. Hummers go into a state of torpor at night; for some, getting that heart revved up in the morning doesn’t work and they expire. It looked like a little jewel, like I could stick a pin in it and wear it on my lapel.

In addition to those two deaths, dozens of birds have hit the windows and survived. When I hear them crash, I usually go outside to see what kind of shape they’re in. In the past, some have looked pretty bad and I feared they’d not make it. A warbler last year took nearly two hours to regain its bearings. I sat at its side, worried that a larger bird or one of those cats might spot a tempting lunch. I watched the bird breathe, blink its eyes, and occasionally try stretching out one of its wings. Eventually it hopped a few paces from me, and ten minutes after that proceeded to hop across the lawn. I still worried its wing might be broken, but the warbler finally gathered its composure and flew off.

I don’t think today’s bird will be as fortunate. It hit hard, and its right wing appears damaged. It can’t stand; every time it tries to right itself, it tips onto its side. I’ve spent 30 minutes with it, and now have to head over to my friend’s. I’ve built a kind of low fortress around the bird, a windbreak made of towels, so that it’s partly camouflaged but can still hop out, if it comes to that. I don’t think it will. I think that sometime over the next few hours, while I’m laughing over brunch, the sparrow will die.


When we got home, it was still breathing. I thought about moving the bird into the garage, where it would be absolutely safe from predators, but worried that if it tried to fly, it’d do further damage. Left it alone for the night.


It’s morning. The sun is a cold disc in the eastern sky. The sparrow is dead. Over the first few hours of morning, I hear two more crashes. Neither are casualties; both birds shake themselves off and fly away.


This afternoon, I will bury the sparrow beneath a maple tree. If sparrows have spirits, and if those spirits have an aesthetic sensibility, this one will have a view of thousands of trees and a winding creek, will hear the local owl at night and the geese at dawn; will hear, at times, the howl of a coyote or the whistle of a distant train. I’m beginning to think we live in a bird cemetery, but that’s probably only the start of it. Nature is full of the marvelous, for sure, but it’s brimming over with death and dying. Even now, at the start of spring, I’m noticing which trees survived the long winter, which will not bloom due to ice damage, disease, or other mysterious and terminal CODs. I watched the gallant attempts of the crocuses to survive several days of snow and wind; they didn’t make it. And now I will be nursemaid to the birds, talking quietly to them after they’ve hit a window, hoping they can recuperate, burying them when they don’t. Elsewhere, I will remind myself, a friend is trying to decide whether to keep her cat alive by giving it daily injections. “She’s my longest relationship,” the friend writes, having lost both her parents last year. I will remind myself of another friend, who is in the process of learning how to say goodbye to her younger brother, dying of cancer. And another friend, who is relearning his life after surviving a brain aneurysm. And another friend, who has endured two years of fruitless tests, all attempts to diagnose an illness that has sapped her of her strength, energy, and creativity. These are the people I am closest to in the world, individuals I consider my family. Of them, right now, I am the luckiest.

I hold no formal faith, believe in no true god, but when I place a rock on the grave of the sparrow later today, I will whisper a prayer.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Close up

I spend a lot of time looking at things close up. For much of the winter and now into these weeks of early spring, I’d go out to the driveway, for instance, and stare at crow tracks in the snow, notice where small stones were visible beneath a patch of ice, study the juxtaposition of un-raked leaves against burgeoning shoots of grass. I took a lot of photographs, because much of what I saw was beautiful; I wanted to remember what it looked like, and I wanted to continue to study the photographs. I have frame after frame of abstract compositions; anyone looking at them would be puzzled at the subject matter. I might have to point out the thin layer of ice, the bubbles caught in and beneath its surface, the array of flattened vegetation or pebbles visible just below the crust. I’m intrigued by what is often overlooked. We are, as a species, capable of a narrowness of focus. This is often a favorable trait; intensity of focus helps us concentrate, helps us accomplish. But every day we overlook thousands of incidents, scenes, interactions, and conversations – many of which are of little consequence. But we also overlook distress and grief in those we care about. We overlook catastrophes of great magnitude. We overlook, for years and even lifetimes, entire continents of suffering. It is a survival mechanism. It is a necessity.

When I was a kid I read Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. In it, Horton, an elephant, notices a sound coming from a speck of dust. That speck turns out to be an inhabited planet. Horton heroically pays attention, even in the face of ridicule and imprisonment. Not only does Horton notice the planet, he does something for the inhabitants. He takes action.

Although I believe that human beings are inherently good, I also believe that we regularly fail to act. We might notice, we might pay extended attention, we might speak about our beliefs, we might speak up or out when it is difficult to do so. All of that is well and good and, at times, even admirable. But most of us, most of the time, fail to do anything. We might send a check, volunteer a few hours of our time – I felt bad for those tsunami victims, those displaced by Katrina, those going hungry in the nearby shelter. Some of us show up to dish out dinner every Sunday or help hang drywall for an afternoon. Lots of us do good deeds when we can.

But look around. Family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, co-workers, neighbors – a lot of people are overlooked. They are ill, they are stressed, they have lost or soon will lose a job, they can’t cope with the burdens of a long winter, they are lonely, they are afraid, they are confused, they are invisible.

We know this, don’t we? There’s nothing new here. Nothing new here, either: we look away.

I like to stack small, flat rocks. I don’t know why. I like the way they look. I have little stacks all over my study. Sometimes a passing truck or slamming door will cause them to topple. I re-stack them, carefully. To me, they are beautiful. For the most part, I neglect them after I stack them. Cobwebs form, and after a few weeks I might notice and dust them off, or just blow the cobwebs away. I can’t say that I pay much attention to these beautiful things I create, beyond the moment of composition. I say that I love them.

In much the same way, I think of my friends, my family, my students, my colleagues. I would say, in many cases, I love them. But I don’t pay enough attention. I sometimes look away. I often fail to act. This is done knowingly, willfully. The same might be true of you.

Today, all I can do is study this picture. I am caught up in the tilt of the rocks, I am a little mesmerized by the strands of the cobweb. The light draws me in. There is a kind of sadness in the photograph that is quietly appealing. Looking at pretty pictures is a nice way to spend an afternoon. But I wish I were doing something else. I wish I believed that tomorrow would be different. I wish we were all a little more like Horton.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Laid Low

The crocuses avoided the barrage of wood, then withstood a day of April snow. But forty-eight hours of heavy winds finally laid them low, literally. Even so, they’re still beautiful. And, with or without the verticality of the crocuses, spring approaches. In two weeks, we’ll have daffodils. In three, hummingbirds. In seven, I’ll turn fifty.

So much math.

So much, so much.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Once a week, rain or shine, whether we have lots of snow or less snow, we pack our trash into Leigh’s station wagon and make a visit to the Oswego County Transfer Station. That’s a neutral-sounding euphemism for the dump, which is actually half dump and half recycling center. We hit both sides, usually two bags each. On the recycling side, we deposit one bag’s worth of newspaper and junk mail, and one full of cans and jars. On the dump side it’s just, well, garbage. There are satisfying aspects to the dumping of the trash, in part because it’s cathartic – a temporary freeing up of space – and in part because it’s physical. You literally throw the bags over the side of a giant bin; depending on what’s below, you might hear a satisfying thunk or bump or clunk. Off in the corner of the recycling area there’s a place for shredded paper, a material for which I hold a weird attraction. I like shredding it, I like looking at it – it’s confetti-like, almost festive – and I like thinking about the tangible remnants of lost secrets. In the back of my mind I think it would be fun, spy-like, to take all those pieces of shredded paper and reconstruct them, rebuild all the words and numbers. Find out what was so important that it needed to be destroyed.

There’s a metal area, too, and although we never use it, it intrigues me. People leave old washers and dryers, rusted bicycles or dirt bikes, tools, various deformed exercise machines, and an array of misshapen and mysterious metal. I always spot at least one tackle box or tool box – the old metal kind with sturdy locks. I imagine that they belonged to men whose children have given them new ones as gifts. Maybe they are the tackle boxes of the dead. If they recently belonged to someone still living, I suspect that they parted with them reluctantly. My father loved his old tackle box and luckily as kids we never had the money or the wherewithal to replace it. His tool box seemed sacred, too, something that would last a lifetime and grow more important and meaningful with age. But week after week, there in the corner of the dump, I’ll spot one, sometimes a whole heap of them. Today there were two old boxes; they looked like a long-married couple. One was a little bigger than the other, both were well-rusted but still functional. Next to one was a collection of ancient tools, probably a dozen or so. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone willingly parting with them; my father, again, would sooner part with a finger than a long-held hammer.

Tackle boxes and tool boxes can be purchased online now. They have some fancy contraptions as far as tool boxes go, including some that unfold up and out to two winged tiers with plenty of shelf space. They come in fire-engine red or silver or black; they’re generally rectangular with silver hardware. Some of them look as though they’d weigh 80 pounds if filled with tools, others are more compact. The tackle box industry seems to be booming – there are plastic boxes that look like little briefcases, others that fold out to look like staircases, see-through tackle boxes, even tackle bags – all in a variety of colors and shapes, including fluorescent green and pink.

I can’t imagine my father carrying a plastic box or one with colors or ever considering a tackle bag. It might not be a true equivalent, and I doubt my father would make the comparison, but maybe his tackle box and tool box were like my library, or what passes for my library. (Planks, wooden blocks, lots of books…) They’re each a kind of sacred space, a personal and private place. I arrange my books in the order I like, sometimes alphabetical, sometimes by subject, sometimes just one author I think might like another author right up against each other. (It’s like being a book/author matchmaker.) There are certain books I want nearby, and others that I believe have magical powers. I have one book by Michael Burkard and one by Anne Carson that WORK for me. I open them, I read a line, a word, a whole poem… and I am immediately inspired to write something myself. They have never failed me, and I haven’t abused their powers. If anything, I consult them more rarely – I don’t want to wear them out.

Those relics I saw today seemed to hold the remnants of someone’s secret life. What old hammer rested in one, what series of handmade lures in another? Were they full of little compartments, or drawers; had someone’s father sat her next to one, decades ago, and taught her how to bait a hook, how to use a socket wrench? If I could, I’d steal those old boxes. I’d open them up and imagine the lives of those who opened them before. I’d give them personalities, maybe even names. I’d cluster them into friendly groups, then neighborhoods. I’d have a whole room full of castoffs. A whole barn full of new junk, transferred from one station to another.