The Rainbow vs Fifty Shades of Grey

This Saturday, Books on the Square hosted a reading by author Maureen D. Lee from her new book, ‘Sissieretta Jones,The Greatest Singer of Her Race- 1868-1933′. I couldn’t help noticing that the bookshelves behind Ms.Lee were lined with the bestselling Three Book Covers of Grey.

I kind of have to root for E.L.James, and any writer who makes it big, but I’m not buying her book. I read a Barbara Cartland romance once, which is two hours of my life I’ll never see again. And in my day, captains of industry were briefly out of fashion. But now bosses are Job Creators, who trickle opportunity down on workers who should be ever grateful. Maybe we should have banned Gov.Carcieri and the General Assembly from reading Harlequin Romance or Ayn Rand or whatever fantasy made them fall in love with Curt Schilling.

When I was young, every guy who wore a tie thought he was Donald Trump. I worked in just about every photofinishing lab in greater Providence. I was a ‘spotter’. That century-old craft of painting the white dust spots on photographs by hand, individually, has gone the way of film. But in the Reagan years you could make a living.

I worked in a small business run by a married couple. The bosses, ‘Lars’ and ‘Phyllis’ didn’t seem to get along, but they were constantly together. Phyllis confided in me that she would wake up at night and drink a strong cup of Swedish coffee, and she was rumored to be using sleeping pills. She was a nervous wreck. Lars was jovial and omnipresent.

“You know,” he said to me once in his thick Swedish accent, of the sculptor, Maya Lin, “she’s North Vietnamese.”

“She’s Chinese-American!” I shot back. Maya Lin, born in Ohio, was not the right shade of white to design the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Even an immigrant like Lars knew that . This was before the internet, so Lars must have been on boss-net, or photofinishing psychic hotline. The occasional racist remark was a constant in all my jobs in the industry.

I wondered how long I would last. Painting out three dust spots on a thousand prints of one image– usually some piece of machinery, was not helping my mental health. My unused brain cells created vivid movies of all the possible dire fates that might befall me. Tedium is exhausting.

Though a dozen people worked there, there was no socializing. Phyllis and Lars so distrusted their employees that we were not allowed to take lunch together, lest we exchange gossip about them. Just once we all went out to a sandwich place at noon– as close to a job action as we ever got. Phyllis told me that they had stopped taking vacations. The last time they went away, their small dog was traumatized by the kennel. In any case, they had no one to watch the shop if they took a day off, so they didn’t.

Lars could get strange in the darkroom, I was told. He didn’t bother me that way, but he was kind of intrusive. One night I was lying in bed, sadly contemplating the approaching day of painting out dust spots. “This job is so boring,” I thought, “and Lars has such bad breath.”

A flashbulb of realization popped over my head. If I was smelling his breath, Lars was getting into my space. Though I was doing karate on and off, I only then realized that I needed to protect my zone.

The next time Lars, while rattling on about something, moved too close, I took a small step back. He looked startled for an instant, and I knew that this gentle and subtle gesture was an act of resistance he had not yet encountered. It was off-script.

And talk about bondage, Phyllis once shouted at Lars that she was going to call the libbers and tell them she was a battered woman. I don’t think that was strictly true, but they did seem chained together in mutual unhappiness. I eventually found out their secret.

Lars was colorblind. He saw the world in fifty shades of grey. Lars depended on Phyllis to do the color correction, a vital skill that would make or break the success of a commercial photofinishing lab. He trusted no one else, so they had to stay together.

I don’t know why we believe that we are mostly rational beings who react and decide on facts and logic. In our grand, romantic dreams, maybe. In reality, we make thousands of unconscious and half-conscious choices every day. The cultural water we swim in shades our perception of ourselves and others. The novelist, John Gardner, in his book ‘October Light’, has a hilarious take on how a trashy paperback influences a character’s speech and actions. Why do little boys tie towels around their necks and think they can fly? They don’t learn that in school.

It’s fair to ask why now, in an economic crisis, women are buying up a fantasy about a corporate master.

Cultural critic Lynn Parramore points out that this is not an original concept, or disconnected from other cultural myths. Janice Radway examined the contradictions in Reading the Romance, a dissection of the elements that make romance novels so addictive. Does the reader own the master when she can close him safely between the covers of a book? Yes and no.

You are what you read. Ayn Rand, a deceased author of critically panned novels has an outsize presence in American politics. Getting a job as a rich man’s mistress is seriously discussed as an option for paying college debt. We keep hearing about tax breaks for Job Creators, as if any human creates something from nothing. There’s an unexamined assumption that everything and everyone is a commodity. Where is the anger? Can’t smart college grads manage robbery or blackmail? Or rising up politically against the years of financial corruption that got us to this place? I’m nostalgic for the days when we talked about ‘sticking it to the man’, not humbly serving him.

Sissieretta Jones was the daughter of parents who survived legal, chattel slavery. I doubt she had any romantic illusions about that status. Fifty shades of sepia colored her fate, but her transcendent voice, talent and endurance allowed her to break bondage and practice racial integration in the South a hundred years before the Civil Rights Movement. Her life was a testimony to the subversive and liberating power of art, and also to the compromises artists make to survive. She was a gifted opera singer, and grew up in Providence, RI. But her hit song was ‘Swanee River’. That was what audiences expected and demanded.

Stories like this don’t get made into movies as long as we let the Grey guys suck up all the money and opportunity. In the Reagan years we watched ‘Dallas’ while the 1% were quietly carrying out their raid on the middle class. We basically had three TV networks then, and they all served Spam. The Internet has changed the game, but you still don’t get a major film made without corporate money.

I hope “Fifty Shades of Grey’ is x-rated, not some Disneyfied ‘Pretty Woman’ version. It should be what it is, and not ooze like an overturned can of Rustoleum into the general culture. Vain hope, I know. All I can do is spray rainbow graffiti on this tiny wall.

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7 responses

  1. Your blogs are so insightful, honest, and well-written that it is a pleasure and a privilege to get a new one. Thank you for your efforts!

  2. Kiersten Marek | Reply

    Brilliant stuff, Nancy….I am scared for my children who must enter the workforce someday. My hope is that things are better by then, but I’m not at all sure how we are going to get there. All I can do is encourage them to live humbly and honestly, and try not to get into debt, because then you are on the hook for all kinds of strange compromises.

    1. I hope at least they won’t have crabby old guys barking at them to ‘smile!’

  3. I own the DVD “A Strong Clear Vision” about Maya Lin.I supported her design.Vietnam veterans disagree on this.I visited once and found so many names-looking at them made me break down.It makes the war accessible on an individual basis.
    The DVD covers other stuff too.Amazingly she is not actually an architect but a designer.

    1. Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, almost destroyed her design. But the Vietnam Veterans themselves chose her proposal from all those submitted, and their decision stood.

      1. joe bernstein

        That is well covered in the DVD.You oughta rent it from Acme sometime.

  4. Dominique Millette | Reply

    You have a gift for description. That Lars and Phyllis combo should be part of a story somewhere:)

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