Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"It Is What It Is"

A couple of years ago, when my moms embarked upon a major renovation/addition project on our house, they made one terrible mistake. Instead of hiring a general contractor to oversee the job, they hired a "construction management" company. (With the wisdom of hindsight, Moose says of that decision, "It was like hiring a hairdresser to perform brain surgery. A hairdresser works with heads, too, but that's not who you want in the o. r. when you're having an aneurism fixed.") Anyway, among the many things my moms came to despise about our construction manager was his maddening tendency to say, apropos of any complication or delay in the project (and there were many of both), "It is what it is." Whatever the situation--the masons had covered the front porch with brick rather than flagstone, the framing company had disappeared with the job half-done, the county inspector failed us for a second time on the close-in inspection--his response was invariably a blase yet contemptuous, "It is what it is."

Moose grew to hate that phrase, just as she grew to hate the ethically-impaired, misogynist creep who continually invoked it. She hated it because it was a device used to evade responsibility, to pretend that whatever was happening was not his fault, that it somehow fell beyond the scope of "construction management." (My moms eventually realized that pretty much everything of significance on the project fell outside the scope of "construction management," which is why they don't recommend it as a business model for homeowners contemplating renovation.) At the same time, it was part of a broader strategy of verbal intimidation designed to keep clients from challenging his judgments or asking pesky questions like, "Do you think it's a good idea to have the house opened up when a hurricane is expected in the neighborhood?" "It is what it is" was a not so subtle way of saying, "Shut the hell up, you idiot woman, and get out of my way."

In fact, Moose came to hate that phrase so much that on the glorious day when my moms' relationship with the construction manager officially fell apart, she ordered him off our property and followed him to his car shouting, "'It is what it is!' 'It is what it is!' I know your company motto is, 'It is what it is!' And it IS, so good-bye!" Goose was terrified in that moment because the construction manager, who is also a D. C. cop, happened to be wearing a gun. (My moms have always regretted that they didn't report that a police officer was using the power of his uniform and weapon to intimidate citizens outside his jurisdiction while performing non-police work, but they were focused at the time on getting the project far enough long that they could move back in the house and be done with him and his lame excuse for a company.) Moose, however, was not afraid, perhaps because she had totally lost control and was oblivious to the gun and the uniform and the bulging purple veins in the construction manager/police officer's neck. Perhaps, but she prefers to think that in that moment she seized her power and decided to fight back against the verbal/political tyranny of "It is what it is." She and Goose never spoke to the construction manager again, though they refused to fire his company. They joked after that incident that "Thelma and Louise have taken control of the building." They started hiring a lot of their own people to finish the work, and we moved back into the house about a month later. The first night we were home, we watched Thelma and Louise on the big new plasma TV that hangs above the fireplace. It is what we make it, Moose said to Goose with a smile.

I ponder the meanings and socio-political implications of this little phrase because summertime still brings back post-traumatic flashbacks of home renovation for everyone in my family. (I hasten to say that we have a beautiful house now, and we don't regret having made the decision to turn our modest red-brick cape cod into a retro-pomo palace of pleasure, with help from our gifted and heroic architect, Brian McCarthy of Bennett Frank McCarthy Architects right here in Takoma Park.) Also, Moose and I just happened to read a couple of pieces New York Times columnist William Safire did on "It is what it is" this spring. (Here is the link to the original column, but you'll only be able to access it if you're a subscriber to New York Times Select. And here's a link to a follow-up he published.) Safire describes "It is what it is" as a "tautophrase," because it relies on tautology's habit of being "designed to define itself by repetition of itself." He rightly sees it as a strategy designed to evade responsibility, to deflect inquiry, or to obscure agency by suggesting irretrievable actions perpetrated by actors we needn't bother to name. "What's done is done" is another powerful example of "tautophrase," after all.

Safire, conservative that he is, isn't as sensitive as Moose and I are to the political perils of the tautophrase. Perhaps our experience with the construction manager made us particularly alert to the insidiousness and the violence of "It is what it is" and other similar locutions. In civic life as in home renovation, the tautophrase is designed to squelch criticism, to intimidate those who might be tempted to dissent from a supposed consensus, and, most dangerously, to alienate the little people from any sense of agency they might dare to claim or assert. "It is what it is" is an argument for keeping troops in Iraq forever and an effort to forestall any consideration of how they came to be there. "It is what it is" rationalizes anything the government might wish to do in the name of a "war on terror" being fought everywhere and nowhere. "It is what it is" tells citizens they needn't worry, needn't think, and better not challenge authorities who know so much more about what "it is" than they do. The tautology is a god-trope ("I am that I am," God says to Moses in Exodus 3:14), the rhetorical equivalent of the Bush administration's theory of the "unitary executive," a theory they have trotted out to justify the most extraordinary expansion of presidential power in American history.

"It is what it is" is a veil, a cudgel, a lie being foisted off on a scared populace in Bush-league America. With what's left of our democracy, we'd better remember that "It is what we make it"--and start trying to make it right.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bad Dog

When I was a pup, Moose took me to obedience school and did her level best to teach me how to be a good dog. The effort was not entirely successful, for I could never be convinced that "goodness" was necessarily the same as "obedience," in dogs or other living things. I was willing to sit, but I would never go into a down on command because the very idea offended me. In any case, Moose also once attended a 2-day sexual harassment seminar at the university, where she learned a lot about the ways in which people can be very "bad dogs" in the workplace. Though Moose and I may have different understandings of the relationship between goodness and obedience, we completely agree that George Bush's "massage" of German chancellor Angela Merkel at the G8 summit is a fine example of how powerful men should not behave with female co-workers, or anyone else for that matter. Bush's bizarre sneaking-up-from-behind attack reminds Moose of an uncle who used to come up behind her and poke her in the side with his fingers. To this day, she reacts to this kind of aggression with a blood-curdling scream and a look on her face very similar to the mixture of shock and horror on Chancellor Merkel's face. We think the president should have to spend a night or two in the dog house with Barney and Mrs. Beasley.

On the other hand, why punish good dogs for a dumb man's boorish behavior? Let the dogs keep poor Laura company inside and send the (p)resident outside where he belongs.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Hot Dog

I've been helping my moms recover from their jetlag. They had a great time in Paris, which you can read about on their travel blog, M&M in Paris. Turns out Moose is a pretty good blogger. I'm thinking of giving her designer access to Roxie's World, now that I've forgiven her for the premature obituary she wrote for me when I had pancreatitis. Moose has a slight hysterical tendency, so her emotions run ahead of the evidence from time to time, but on the whole she takes good care of me and Goose and nobody makes us laugh like she does.

There's a lot on my mind right now. It's really hot for one thing, here in Washington and throughout the lower 48 states. That makes it hard for me to breathe, which makes my moms worry. Plus, they finally went to see An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about my guy Al Gore's crusade on climate change, so now they also worry that our air-conditioning is going to destroy the planet. I worry about that, too, but dogs don't sweat. I need to be able to curl up next to my favorite register in the living room and bask in the artificial chill generated by the giant electricity hogs in our basement. I promise to help my moms and fans of my blog make small changes in their daily habits that can reduce energy costs and contribute to the fight against global warming, but I'm not budging from my register until night-time temperatures are below 70. In the meantime, though, I want all fans of my blog to pledge to see An Inconvenient Truth:

My broken heart is also heavy with concern for the deepening chaos of the situation in the Middle East. While some are making grim jokes about the apocalypse, I watch in horror as the "leader" of the "free" world stuffs rolls into his mouth and pops off about how Syria should just get Hezbollah to "stop doing this shit." Brilliant suggestion, Mr. President, and by the way there's a little chunk of butter in the corner of your mouth. Maybe if you just took this napkin and stuffed it in there. . . ? To some, this incredible Stupid Human Trick is further proof that Bush is a plain-spoken man who calls things as he sees them. To me, it's proof that Bush doesn't see nearly enough. His judgments are quick, shallow, dim--and dangerous. I can't imagine how you humans put up with such a lame leader of your pack.

Goose's home state of Texas seems to be doing penance for launching George Bush into American politics by staging one of the wackiest governor's races in the history of democracy. The Washington Post has a delightful profile today on Kinky Friedman's weird-yet-compelling bid to replace Gov. Rick "Good Hair" Perry. Given that the office of the governor in Texas is one of the weakest in the country, I think the Lone Star state might as well elect someone who has the guts to campaign in stinky shirts and to offer up this taped greeting to fans of the WNBA's Houston Comets: "Houston Comets basketball -- it's not just for lesbians anymore!" Moose liked that one so much that she nearly spit her coffee across the breakfast nook. That's the kind of plain talk she admires. It's verbally quick but not at all shallow. It names a truth that is ordinary yet in some ways discomfiting. It breaks a silence that ought to be broken and creates possibilities for laughter and connection across lines of difference without scapegoating anyone. George Bush doesn't know a word of that plain-spoken language.