Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Phoebe Snow and the Blackbird

Last week, I drove my daughter to the National Air and Space Museum's annex near Dulles Airport for Family Science Night. If you live in Maryland, crossing the Potomac into Northern Virginia sometimes feels like entering another country--it was rush hour and the traffic was thick, the cars moving quickly despite the glare of the setting sun.

My head swirled with iterations of "choice" and "freedom," words I hear all the time because I pay too much attention to the political news. Somehow, these words are linked, this I know, but I can never properly define what that link is, and I never quite understand what people mean when they articulate these concepts in that casual way that people do, especially many of my erstwhile neighbors on the other side of the Potomac, to whom these words seem to mean a great deal. In America, we are offered 'choices' about everything from drywall to colleges to careers. In America, we are assured that our freedoms are real and worth defending.

The Udvar-Hazy Center is all glass and metal pipe and sharp angles. We were late, so for the first time in I don't know how long, I failed to look for the handicapped ramp to the entrance as we shuffled quickly up several sets of stairs from the parking lot to the glass and steel entrance door, through which the guard performed the requisite check of my purse and told us to walk down the hall, down the set of stairs and we would find our group by the Blackbird. I expressed some uncertainty about this Blackbird, and he smiled and said, don't worry, you can't miss it--it doesn't look like any other plane you've ever seen.

As it turned out, this was not quite entirely the case, as I don't spend much time looking at planes and as we reached the end of the long hallway we could see that the hallway served as a bit of a ramp to look out over the expanse of the museum space, which was a very large airplane hangar. When very large objects are placed into an even larger space, this, naturally, distorts perspective. All I could see were planes and space craft of various sorts, real ones, both scattered over the vast floor and hanging by steel threads from the ceiling. It was the kind of display that makes one gape. At first, people themselves were not distinguishable as many of the children at the museum that evening were about the height of many of the aviation wheels, atop which perched huge planes like birds of prey.

The Blackbird was, in fact, black and of an unusual shape. Two docents were giving a presentation about pitch, roll, and yaw at the base of the plane. My daughter, curious about the plane itself, began to ask questions. At this point, I was, frankly, in awe of this giant black plane, the black up close composed of multiple plates with a greyish cast over them. Standing next to the plane was like being on top of a mountain and looking out across infinite space as other mountains undulated into the distance.

The Blackbird had no wings. But that was not immediately observable. The nose cone was drawn to a point and the point extended itself into space like a probe or a needle. The cockpit a glass triangle tucked into the upward curve from the nose cone and the plane's outline like the action of stroking a cat with two hands from the sides of the face and back along the neck, the hands gliding gently over the body, all of a piece. What passed for wings was an edge drawn out like a pucker along the side of the aircraft, as though someone had gently flattened pursed lips. Standing in front of the nose, the plane itself disappeared, save for the two huge engines at the back, which, nonetheless, protruded.

The Blackbird was designed to fly at three times the speed of sound and could travel from DC to LA in 64 minutes. A pilot planning a turn would have to begin preparation 200 to 300 miles in advance.

I have to tell you that, all of my trepidations about war and violence aside, I found this awesome, in every permutation of that word from the contemporary to the Biblical. All I could think was, what does it take to climb into that cockpit and turn this plane's nose down the runway? More confidence than I have, surely. My actual thoughts, I have to say, were quite raw and colloquial.

The Blackbird, however, is obsolete. A spy plane, it flies too fast to send a signal for digital photography, the standard of the modern era. It was designed to handle film and fly it back fast enough for it to be developed, before an enemy could change its route or activities.

That same week, many persons in my Facebook feed posted links to Phoebe Snow and her music. She died April 26 at the age of 60. I didn't think much of it until my husband pointed out that the reason Snow virtually disappeared from the music scene in the 1970s was because she gave birth to a child with brain damage. Her husband left her, and she 'chose' to care for her at home, rather than institutionalize her, an option more readily available in that decade. Snow outlived her daughter by only four years, a fact that I do not find coincidental. The Times obituary describes her gradual fade into caregiving and the concerns of earning money to support her responsibilities almost as though it were a gradual sinking into obsolescence.

Not long ago, I hyperlinked and hyper-hopped my way to the flagship journal of disability studies, Disability Studies Quarterly. I was looking for a way to articulate, in dispassionate terms, my discomfort with what is now establishment feminism. The quandary and predicament it puts me in, like Solomon decreeing that the child claimed by two mothers be cut in half to resolve the difference. I found what I was looking for in the carefully considered article by D.A. Caeton, "Choice of a Lifetime: Disability, Feminism, and Reproductive Rights," which parses the essential conflict between disability theorists and feminist theorists over abortion--in one version, the rights of the mother are violated, in the other, the rights of the disabled to be considered human are erased. You should read the entire article, really, but this quote is important to me:


There exists a contradiction, then, between arguing for the right of a woman to abort any fetus and arguing that a unique fetus must be preserved. Rather than undermining the position of disability rights advocates, though, I think that this points to the instability and illogic of choice. What constitutes a choice? On what basis is choice made and, given the hegemonic interpolation of dominant ableist culture, can a choice ever truly be considered freely made? By emphasizing a staunch pro-choice position, feminists appear to be supporting an unreflexive model of the subject that has the liberty to navigate the world free of cultural constraints. We certainly aren't irresistibly inculcated by ideology, but nor are we completely autonomous rational beings. Instead, choice occurs within cultural constraints that ultimately undermine its free operation and which contour the subject herself.

And on the drive back from the Udvar-Hazy Center, I thought about the illogic of "choice" and "freedom" and I wondered if my Northern Virginia neighbors thought, in the throes of unreflexiveness, about the irony that "choice" does not necessarily lead to "freedom" and that the two concepts might even be paradoxical. Because, in this country, we often speak about choice, especially with reference to mothers, as though it had a moral valence, when, in fact, the opposite is the more truthful. As Stephen Colbert might say, there is a truthiness to 'choice' and 'freedom' that quite escapes most of us. And I mean, all of us, as most Americans, even those opposed to abortion, toss about the words 'choice' and 'freedom' as casually as if they were flipping pancakes.

How can we define Phoebe Snow's devotion to her child as a 'choice'? As though she could just as freely have chosen to do the opposite. Doesn't that cheapen or devalue some of our most deeply rooted concepts of morality, ethics and responsibility? And I say that knowing full well that my statement is complex and treads dangerously close to arguments that would try to universalize particular creeds and religions in the name of universal morals and ethics. But we cannot, absolutely cannot substitute the concept of 'choice' for the concept of 'ethics.' 'Choice', at least in the way it is absorbed and conflated with 'freedom' (and self-determination), does not recognize the constraints that bind people. "Moral relativism" is the wrong term, a jaundiced and now meaningless term--but the doctrine of 'choice' presents options with a false glaze of equitability, a false sense that autonomy is as limitless as the horizon.

Phoebe Snow was compelled to climb into the cockpit of the Blackbird, not knowing if she had the guts to fly the plane or not as it took off, three times the speed of sound, taking her away from what she knew of herself, the notes of her songs lingering in the plane's wake.

1 comment:

Dale said...

Yes, I don't know what the hell people are talking about, often. Do they really want a life beyond "causes and conditions"? Do they think they know what a such a life would look like? What makes them think they would like it?