Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Look at me

When you pass a stranger on the street, or get on a crowded elevator, or take your change from the cashier, do you look them in the eye? I don't, usually. I'm fairly shy, and I like to make my day-to-day interactions as short as possible. But something strange happens on those rare occasions when I look up and lock eyes with someone who is not known to me. The sense of connection, of awareness of another person is striking. Sometimes it can be scary or feel so intimate as to leave me blushing. Do you feel this way? Do you look others in the eye during your day?

I am obsessed with Marina Abramovic's art piece at MOMA, "The Artist is Present." During her performance, Abramovic sits in a chair, unmoving, barely blinking, while patrons take turns seated across from her. No words are exchanged, but the emotional impact is palpable.

Link-y goodness:
Flickr portraits of patrons
Novelist Colm Toibin's review for NY Review of Books

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A spanking! A spanking!

I'm sorry, this is not a post about "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (collective groan from the audience). Nor is it relating to BDSM in any way, so if you came here via some selective search terms this post will be really disappointing.

This is a post about spankings. The kind you receive as an impressionable child and later seething adolescent at the hands of your most likely fundamentalist parents or unenlightened teachers. Or do liberals spank their children? The liberals I know just burn sage and wave it over the offending child to ward off evil spirits. But I digress...

I got a lot of spankings as a child. A LOT. I got spanked in first grade for talking too loud, for laughing because the boy behind me farted, and once for telling the teacher she was wrong. She was indeed wrong -- Christopher Columbus did not discover America, and I thought all this attention he was receiving was just ridiculous -- and I and my father got a nice apology from Mrs. Smith after Daddy brought this to her attention. (I actually later grew to like Mrs. Smith quite a lot. A nice lady, if uninformed about the discovering of her native land and all that.) I got spanked for throwing dirt at a boy I hated, for sticking my tongue out at the principal (don't ask), for looking out the window when I was supposed to be looking at the blackboard, but mostly for talking. Almost daily in primary and elementary school for talking. In junior high and high school I learned to be discreet and write notes instead.

And those were just the spankings in school. I also got spankings from my parents once I got home for getting any spankings in school. My dad spanked me once for putting a bowl down in the sink that suddenly broke, and my father claimed I had put the bowl down "angrily." Well, I wasn't angry until the spanking happened, dad. 

Once my beloved grandfather spanked me, a fact that sends shudders through the rest of the grandchildren as only I and my cousin Shelly have ever been spanked by him. One of us, I forget which, had been given this toy that involved upside down plastic cups with rubber straps on them that we walked on. I have no idea what they were called. Anyway, we fought over this stupid toy. It was my turn and Shelly was hogging the toy, as she often did, and I was totally calling her on it. We were about 8 years old and arguing over a second-rate dollar store toy on the front porch of my grandparents' house when Papa -- a large, imposing man who rarely displayed any anger -- came tearing out the door.

"What the hell is going on out here?" he bellowed. Before I could get over my shock at Papa saying "hell" in our presence, he had snatched us up and whipped us both. I was mortified. Papas are supposed to be loving and tolerant and give you candy, not spank you on the front porch where God and the entire Slocum family can see you. Funnily enough, my grandfather has a very hazy recollection of this momentous day, and only maintains that we both "probably deserved it."

Let me pause briefly to acknowledge the elephant in the room. I'm sure many of you who know me more than passing well are reading this and nodding your heads wisely. So that's where the rage comes from. Let's save that post for another time. What I would like to share with you now is the most heinous spanking of my memory, a memory that is long and full of probably hundreds of spankings.

It was 11th grade. I was 17. I looked at least 22. I was in study hall, a "class" I was taking because my school required it and I wish I was kidding about that. Our usual teacher, Coach Lightsey, was out that day and we had a substitute. (Note for a later post: Why did my high school have so many coaches masquerading as teachers? Oh, rage building...) I don't remember the substitute at all, only that I think she was a young and rather frail-seeming woman. An easy mark for the bigger, more raucous members of 5th period study hall. Suffice it to say, she did not have an easy go of it as our babysitter that day. Some students busied themselves with just talking loudly, others sang or made quite elaborate paper airplanes. Silly but harmless stuff. Most of us were reading, doing homework, or talking quietly to neighbors, ignoring the poor sub's shrieks for attention. While I would love to say I was reading Plath and writing dark poetry in my journal, I'm about 99% sure I was sleeping, because God made study halls so students could take naps in class unmolested. When I woke up and hastily wiped the drool off my desk, the sub was almost in tears and swore that Coach Lightsey would "make us pay."

By the next day, all thoughts of the substitute had been forgotten. We filed into study hall, rolling our eyes and sighing heavily when we saw Coach Lightsey had returned (he was a bit of a ball buster) and took our seats. Coach strolled up to the front of the class and said, "So what happened yesterday?" Silence. We weren't even sure what he was talking about. Perhaps he had become confused, and mixed up our study hall period with one of the actual subjects he taught (math, if I remember correctly)? He was a coach, after all, and most of us regarded him as tough but rather slow.

"I said, what happened yesterday," he repeated, his jaw clenched and his voice sliding down an octave. This made us squirm in our seats a bit. He was pissed, we could tell. But about what? We all looked around at each other for guidance. The sub wasn't bleeding when she left, was she? Sure, we were noisy, but he can't possibly take issue with that in STUDY HALL, can he? But reader, he did.

"Since none of you want to speak up," he said, spittle flecking those in front row, "you can all report to Mr. Stringer's office tomorrow for a paddling." The room immediately erupted in Say what? or whatever the 1991 equivalent would have been. We were outraged. A paddling! At our ages! I was most outraged because I had slept through all of the hootin' and hollerin' but would be punished just the same. "If someone wants to speak up and say who disrupted class, we will only paddle the offenders," he intoned, his narrowed gaze sweeping the room. I thought for sure the nerds would break ranks on this one, but once it sank in that this was an "us vs. them" situation, the room grew perfectly quiet. Nobody wanted to be the tattletale.

The next morning at 8 am, our class was lined up in the hallway outside Mr. Stringer the assistant principal's office. The chatter at first was boisterous and making the whole thing into a big joke. How cool were we, such a bad ass class we all had to be paddled at once! Such rule breakers! The big guys went first. Since these were the actual "offenders" in question, they felt themselves honor-bound to go first and get the first few licks. We knew his swinging arm would be fresh for the first few students, and start to flag about middle of the field. There were 30 of us, and I was roughly #15 in line. Some of the jokesters had put magazines or folded paper towels in the seat of their pants to cushion the blow, but we all thought this was more about symbolism. Ol' Coach Lightsey showing the kids he meant business.

Then the first kid came out. He was roughly 6'1", 200 pounds and he was holding back tears and rubbing his ass in misery. "Holy shit" was all we could get out of him as he hobbled down the hallway. The line erupted in pandemonium. Some of the girls burst into tears and the rowdier kids were threatening lawsuits. But who were they kidding. This was Mississippi, where civil liberties go to die. We knew we were doomed.

By the time my turn came, I was practically nauseous. I did consider sticking my finger down my throat to vomit and lose my place in line. However, 1) puking in public is probably worse than a spanking and 2) I was a little afraid they'd spank me any way, and I'd be known for the girl who puked and got spanked anyway. I walked into the principal's office like Marie Antoinette to the guillotine.

Mr. Stringer stood off to the side, hands folded, his jowls resting on his starched collar. Coach Lightsey stood beside him and a little apart, the better to get a good swing. The paddle in his hands was like nothing I'd ever seen. It was at least three inches thick and carved with a word that I don't remember. I'm pretty sure the rumor was that it was Coach Lightsey's personal paddle with which he carried out all executions school-sanctioned spankings and it had a name carved into it, like "The Beast" or "The Equalizer" or something. I have mercifully blocked the paddle's name from my memory.

I was told to bend over the desk, which I did with much reddening of my face. The executioner, er, Coach Lightsey spared me a brief, evil smile, then drew back his arm, the paddle raised high into the air. I'm sure it took only a second for the wood of the paddle to meet the acid-washed denim of my Girbaud jeans, but it felt like eternity. I felt I could hear it whooshing through space, seeking to blot out my very heart. Oh who am I kidding? I got spanked by a middle-aged man, just one lick, and then they said, "Next!"

Jesus Christ on a cracker, did it hurt. Tears sprang to my eyes immediately, but I laughed it off when outside with my friends. I could barely sit all day. I felt swollen and bruised, but mostly I felt fucking violated. I wanted to tear Coach Lightsey's throat out with my teeth. How dare he.

Not long after I graduated, I got word that Coach Lightsey had died. He had been sick with cancer for some time and had passed away after a very long battle. While I felt sympathy for his wife, also a teacher, I struggled to find some crumb of pity in my heart for Coach Lightsey but I kept seeing him with that damn paddle. I wondered if he had enjoyed telling an almost grown woman to "bend over" while he spanked her. Did he enjoy that power he had exerted over us, making us fear him, making us feel pain? I knew our little ordeal in Mr. Stringer's office couldn't compare to what he suffered in his illness, but I wondered if he had had any regrets while he lay dying. If he could, would he try to impart wisdom to us in that class, instead of dread? Make us feel enlightened instead of terrified? Would he be a different kind of man, the kind who children wanted to be, if he could go back?

Then my thoughts were interrupted by a friend of mine, who had also been in that infamous class. "Dude," he said, "I heard Coach Lightsey loved that paddle so much he got buried with it." Yeah, I think a man like that probably wouldn't regret a damn thing.