April 2018: Gym for the Soul

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“While You Were Sleeping” from Toni Hamel’s “Land of Id” series. Via Toner Magazine

 

Texas has signed a bill into law that prohibits the state institutions from contracting with businesses or individuals who are boycotting Israel. Seriously: you have to sign a contract that includes language asserting that you do not support the boycott. I guess it passed a few months ago, but it just came to my attention when a Facebook friend saw the language in one of his own contracts. He was freelancing was at the University of Houston, my former employerthey didn’t create the policy, but since they receive state funding, they have to comply. He’s in an ongoing lawsuit about it… the whole thing is baffling, since it’s so blatantly unconstitutional.

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“Dragon Lady,” written, directed, and performed by Sarah Porkalob
OBERON, March 22-24

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Sarah Porkalob (right) and her grandmother, Maria, titular “dragon lady.” Photo via BosFilipinos.com

I completely forgot to include this show in last month’s round-up, which is nuts because it’s kind of an unforgettable show. In this one-woman musical, performer/activist Sarah Porkalob hilariously and poignantly portrays at least 10 of her family members, framed by her grandmother recounting her past on the eve of her 60th birthday. Porkalob is a totally wonderful performer, physical and sharp, and the band lifted the whole enterprise to a new level. Do see her if she tours your town.

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I did 250 interviews in four geographic areas of the country. I didn’t know anything about the school-to-prison pipeline, so it all surprised me. I had to open up my learning curve about that. Everything I began to hear, including the language, was new to me. For example, I didn’t anticipate that, as I looked at school discipline, I would learn things about trauma, Adverse Childhood Experiences scores, stress, how poverty affects not only emotional development but also cognitive development…. This play is meant to be what it is, a film, a work of art that I hope will excite people who have different resources and different kinds of abilities than I do to make a difference.

— Anna Deavere Smith on “Notes in the Field” in an interview for the Washington Post

On my birthday, I saw Anna Deavere Smith perform “Notes in the Field” at Boston College, a filmed version of which recently came out on HBO. In it, she performs as about 10 of the people she interviewed (the movie has more than the live version I saw). The live performance was more of a hybrid lecture, with Smith giving a conversational introduction to each different character she portrayed—no costume changes, no set pieces. She moved more seamlessly from character to character in the HBO version, aided by projections, costume changes, and even the odd musician (the characters were introduced with captions).

Whereas she had to ask the live audience if we had seen the video of Freddie Gray being beaten, shackled, and tossed in the back of a paddy wagon by the police—sustaining injuries from which he later died, including an almost totally severed spinal cord—in the film, we watched the video together. Emotionally and artistically speaking, that was the most significant difference. She says in the WaPo interview that she hopes the film can be used in classrooms—I agree that that could be a great place for it.

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You can’t force people to collect the “correct” art, of course…. as local gallerist Hilde Lynn Helphenstein told me, “Immediately in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the market made a clear pronouncement that it is still focused on work which is sexually exploitative of female representation.” Yet, is it really a shocker that the pretty paintings of pretty young ladies were snapped up faster than the [“Propaganda Pots”]?

“Who’s Afraid of the Female Nude?” by Michael Slenske and Molly Langmuir for The Cut

I’m not terribly interested in this article’s central question—”Can a male artist still paint a female nude,” I mean, isn’t that a rehash of “can men even talk to women now”?—but the exploration is a fascinating ride. Since part three is a quiz, presenting paintings and asking the reader to guess the sex of the artist (I got most of them wrong), the reader feels guided into a conclusion that genitals ultimately don’t affect representation in contemporary art the way the #MeToo movement might suggest. It seems like two different questions regarding the male vs. female gaze. But overall, the disorientation from one section of this article to the next is intentional. Interesting perspectives all the way through, nonetheless.

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Anne Bogart describes the theatre as a gym for the soul, where both artists and audiences practice empathy, but what does it mean to empathize? These two shows remind the audience that empathy requires work and that “to empathize” is an action, not simply some magical feeling that appears. 

“A Guide to Constructing Empathy” by James Wyrwicz for HowlRound, reviewing “Say Something Bunny!” by Alison S.M. Kobayashi and “Margarete” by Janek Turkowski. Both shows incorporate found audio/visual footage and reconstruct the lives of their subjects, with the writers/performers taking an active part in that construction. 

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Another pattern that I’ve noticed while observing other people—like white rock critics assessing hip-hop, men explaining women to themselves, or Torontonians who once visited Thailand debating the ketchup content of Pad Thai—is that people who aren’t marginalized in some way love appointing themselves the authenticity police of those who are, often with a passion and confidence that’s inversely proportionate to their actual knowledge. 

There is something about the word “real,” though, that hits me specifically as an autistic human. 

“Real Autism” by Sarah Kurchak for Hazlitt

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I realized that what I don’t like about this picture is the “equity” slide is accommodating for height differences. It is perpetuating the differences we are trying to address with equity are inherently biological. It continues this dangerous narrative that racial equity is “helping” people of color and communities of color because we are inherently and biologically deficient. 

“Can We Stop Using the Box Graphic When We Talk About Racial Equity?” by Heidi Schillinger for Fakequity. Just realized this article is a year old, but it’s still relevant!

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I don’t want to parent like I pick stocks. For too long, I think white kids like I was have been taught that equality is simply a matter of getting all the best stuff for people of color, or poor people, too, rather than reckoning with the notion that equality may actually require white, rich kids to have less. Even more, that having less might feel far better, less toxic, less distracting, less like there is a story underneath the story that no one is telling you. And it makes you feel kind of crazy and undeserving of all that has been given to you because, guess what, you kind of are undeserving — in the sense that no one in a just world would justify some kids having so much more than other kids. Except we do. Because we’re lost. And moving too fast.

“Stop Asking and Answering Other People’s Questions” by Courtney E. Martin for On Being. A good mix of stories here about parents’ school choices for their kids. 

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While death positivity takes many forms, a major tenet of this movement is the advocation for a “good death,” a death that is in line with one’s own individual values…. But it’s not always this simple. It’s true that categorizing any death as “good” is radical in our death-fearing society, but lurking behind this movement is a complicated disparity and dichotomy: A good death is often a privileged one, and the bad deaths — the violent, untimely, unexpected and patterned deaths — are disproportionately experienced by the country’s most marginalized people.

“Who Gets To Have A ‘Good Death’?” by Tessa Love for The Establishment

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The writers of The Lion King admitted to recognizing certain similarities between their tale and Hamlet, once they decided that Scar would be Mufasa’s brother. They even leaned on that similarity for a time while scripting before dispensing with it. But people still call out The Lion King for being an animated version of Hamlet, and argue the point constantly. Why? Because an uncle kills his brother for the throne and is eventually unseated by his nephew? It’s a pretty basic comparison. Plenty of stories do this kind of thing. Unless Simba actually struggles with madness, I’m not seeing much of a parallel.

“What We Mean When We Call Something ‘Shakespearean'” by Emily Asher-Perrin for TOR. Interesting piece in general, but immortalized because I hate it when people say that “The Lion King” is an adaptation of “Hamlet,” and Asher-Perrin is on the same page. Themes exist, people. 

 

 

March 2018: Spectacle, or Spectacular

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Illustration by Maria Fabrizio via STAT (more about the article farther down this post)

If I’m being cynical, Boston’s inferiority complex as a“top U.S. innovation city” is why we have a city-wide partnership between 14 museums and galleries called “Art + Tech”…. In truth, there is nothing to suggest that “Art + Tech” came down from local city government, no “presented by Mayor Walsh” or “made possible by the General Electric” tagline…. But why mount this initiative now, Boston, when new technology is so thoroughly interwoven into every aspect of our lives that we barely acknowledge it—and Boston’s personal art history doesn’t seem to be featured?

I wrote about a few venues in the “Art + Tech” initiative for Aeqai this month. The review is more positive than the intro cited above, but I can’t get over my initial reaction, surely stemming from my own personal Boston hang-ups.

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If being surrounded by a cultureless abyss insufficiently communicates to confused tourists that they are in Houston, the bean’s verticality will therefore act as an additional reminder of their poor life choices.

I LOVE the “bean war” happening between Chicago and Houston right now. The above is an excerpt from bitter Kim Janssen of the Chicago Tribune. This article in the Houston Chronicle is a good print-friendly distillation of the barbs, and two funny Chicago protesters picketed with #notmybean signs last week.

While the Chicago bean is better for selfies (I even have one somewhere), I like the Houston bean better as a piece of art. Public art, anyway. I say this from a very safe distance.

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“Skeleton Crew” by Dominque Morrisseau
Huntington Theatre Company, closed March 31

“Skeleton Crew” is the third most-produced regional play in the 2017-18 season nationwide, and it’s easy to see why: great writing that features four affable characters enduring a depressingly American experience. The auto factory (door stamping, specifically) where they work in Detroit is slowly approaching complete closure. I thought the female half of the cast—Patricia R. Floyd as Faye, union rep and crew matriarch mere months away from her retirement benefits, and Toccarra Cash as Shanita, a heavily-pregnant model-worker—shone particularly brightly. Wilson Chin’s slowly disappearing set, with car doors on conveyors hanging above the main break-room action area, was also a highlight. Check out Josh’s review on Talkin’ Broadway for more.

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“And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy” by Adrian Shirk
2017, Counterpoint Press
Memoir – 261 pages

Adrian Shirk’s book is a memoir guided by the lives of religious women throughout U.S. history, highlighting the weirdness and survivalism inherent to woman’s American existence throughout the past 250 years or so. Mary Baker Eddy, Flannery O’Connor, Sojourner Truth, and Marie Laveau intermingle with her troubled brother, an independent, letter-writing aunt, and Shirk’s own tarot-reading, church-going, chain-smoking self as she journeys back and forth across the country. I enjoyed the journey, though I was admittedly more interested in the historical figures and her personal interactions with their histories than the author’s own chapter-long stories. The book also isn’t a great choice for someone looking for more typical, popular memoirs—while Shirk’s artful prose is clear-cut, there isn’t a tidy narrative, no defining moment, no clearly stated truth. That’s part of the point, though, and I appreciated the book as an exploration, and a celebration of overlooked women mystics through a personal lens.

To illustrate Shirk’s tone, treatment, and research, here’s a bit about Linda Goodman, who wrote the first astrology book to make the New York bestsellers list:

[Goodman] wasn’t writing about astrology in 1953, so what was it? Metered poems or short stories? Perfecting her top-notch copy? Coming of age in postwar America, during the years women were being filtered out of the workforce and into the suburbs, into a domestic ideal most closely resembling the Victorian era, I wonder if she knew in advance that shed have to write something larger than life, that in order to do anything professionally creative, she’d have to make a spectacle of herself, or be spectacular. 72

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“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath
1963, Harper Collins 50th anniversary edition
Novel – 244 pages

I remember the older cover of this book vividly from my high school library, where I had free periods as a senior. I think I was a little afraid to read it, since I knew that the author had committed suicide. It felt invasive. But, I probably would have loved it then, as I loved it now, despite its sickly sheen; Plath’s prose is a total joy, deftly, innocently leading us into incredibly dark depths. I certainly would have read it differently in high school than I did now.

I can also see why it’s been labeled “the female catcher-in-the-rye.” The comparison between the two books makes me think of a film article I read a few years ago, “‘Bird Man’ is ‘Black Swan’ for Boys.” Although Holden and Esther are roughly the same age in their respective books, unlike Michael Keaton and Natalie Porter in these films, their woes feel like a similarly gendered handling. It is the thirst for authenticity and—in “Bird Man,” anyway—the quest for exceptionalism that drives the male protagonists to madness/suicidal tendencies; with women, it’s a loss of self, a disappearing.

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After Richard Linklater’s Slacker became an unexpected box-office hit in 1991, every major studio in the United States dropped untold amounts of money trying to clone its success…. These films relied, without exception, on two crucial tropes: the cynical cool of rejecting ambition and popularity, and the mopey, tortured Gen X man-child who embodied that cool.

“You’ve Reached the Winter of Our Discontent” by Rebecca Schuman, part of her “The 90s Are Old” series for Longreads

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There are fans who seem to think Rick’s horrible behavior is justified because he’s cognizant of the damage it does and the cycle of self-loathing that attends each bout of emotional abuse. A charitable read on the sitcom, however — and BoJack Horseman probably does this better — would find an argument against taking such dour satisfaction from one’s moral indifference. At their best, both BoJack and Rick and Morty attest that you don’t get points for merely acknowledging how you’re a bad person; you also have to try to change. 

“‘Rick and Morty’ and the rise of the ‘I’m a Piece of Shit’ Defense” by Miles Klee for Mel Magazine

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When we study our participant before planning an Odyssey, we take many approaches. The first is a questionnaire that takes hours to complete…. Next, we conduct phone interviews with the friends, family, children, parents, coworkers, lovers of the participant, after which we go on retreat to spend a week as a team thinking deeply about our subject. We drink their favorite beverages, watch their most beloved films, listen to the albums they get nostalgic over, and even try to dream about them. The goal in this process is to fall in love with them. Yes, they are a stranger to us, but when someone is that vulnerable with us and we have the energy to give them our undivided attention, it is surprisingly easy to become enamored.

“What I’ve Learned from Turning People’s Hopes and Fears into Private Immersive Performances” by Ayden LeRoux for Electric Literature

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Writing, to me, has always been the duty of anyone in proximity to culture…. Words can be our tools for building the architecture of cultural memory, and art without the written word is like a protest without its organisers. Inciting changes requires commitment. And so, I show up, sometimes as a sheepish writer and sometimes as an interviewee. Since the beginning of my career I have been taught that it is an honour and privilege to record and be recorded, but sometimes I dream about how different the questions could be.

“why we need to radically need to rethink the power issues of the art world” by Kimberly Drew for i-D

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It is difficult to admit making a mistake, dear celebs, but this is an insufficient reason to double down on a mistake when it poses a true mortal danger to people in the sex trades. Time is running out as this bill gets closer to a vote in the Senate, threatening to isolate people already at the margins and deprive them of the means of doing their work safely. Now is the moment for celebrities to give up the fantasy of saving “Jane Doe” and do the hard work of seeing and listening to people in the sex trades as fully formed, complex individuals who have actual names. 

“If You Care About Sex Trafficking, Trust People in the Sex Trade — Not Celebrities” by Alana Massey for Allure. This was published on March 7, and unfortunately, SESTA passed in the senate on March 21. The negative consequences Massey and many others predicted are already happening.

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Ostaseski remembers Agnes as a woman of quiet determination who smoked Camels and kept the pack tucked into the pocket of her short floral apron. It’s tempting to try and imagine her at the moment she fully comprehended the minefield she was about to traverse with both men on her shoulders, while also carrying the grief of a wife and a mother. She stood out to Ostaseski. He trains those who care for the dying, and is interested in the role that family caregivers like Agnes play in the health care setting — how ill-equipped they can sometimes be, and how our culture and medical system might remedy this shortcoming.

“With the help of a loved one, a family finds what is essential in the end” by Bob Tedeschi for STAT. Side note: I loved the illustration for this story, it’s the featured image for this post.

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People justify video game bad behavior … by invoking the pseudo-scientific notion of “blowing off steam.” While I do find what is called the “catharsis hypothesis” to be more than a little troubling, I also find video games to be an effective means of temporarily eschewing real world concerns…. But the PC game A Mortician’s Tale (2017), in many ways, is the opposite of catharsis. In it, you assume the role of a recent funeral direction graduate tasked with operating a mom and pop funeral home. 

“R.I.P.: A Mortician’s Tale”  by Lee Matalone for The Rumpus

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Much of science fiction deals with imagining dystopia. I’ll talk about why that is later, but I strongly believe that, at this moment in time, we need to remember that one of the highest callings of science fiction is imagining utopia. I don’t mean starry-eyed visions of a fairyland that drops out of the sky. I also don’t mean a static society built on some fundamental irony like panopticon or the suppression of free will. I mean honest, earnest engagement with the question of what a better world looks like.

“Instructions for the Age of Emergency” by Monica Byrne on her blog. I’m smitten with this longread/keynote address and the future vision it presents.

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In March, my bi-monthly blood donation coincided with the Bleedin’ 4 Amina blood drive, organized by the Call Your Girlfriend podcast. Beloved co-host Amina has endometrial cancer, and while the blood donations obviously don’t go directly to her, they do help others in need. I’ve been donating or attempting to donate  since the Pulse nightclub shooting (after years of thinking I wasn’t eligible because of living abroad), and went on St. Patrick’s Day this year. I was dehydrated, so it took longer than usual, but thanks to persistent technicians, I managed to fill the bag. If you’re eligible, consider donating, this month or anytime!