April 2017: The Sheer Uncertainty of the Whole Enterprise

 

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Illustration by Amy Jean Porter via The Awl

 

2 criticism crash courses, 6 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast,” 2 musicals, 1 validation of my Luddite leanings, 3 “failed” “feminist” startups, 1 re-appropriated Bible verse, 1 professor I wish I’d taken classes with, 2 novels

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Two specific “criticism” events this month, very different from each other: a lecture at DiverseWorks by Claudia La Rocco—poet, artist, critic and editor-in-chief of SF MoMA’s Open Space—and a day-long workshop at WriteSpace about writing food and restaurant reviews with Houstonia’s managing editor, Katharine Shilcutt.

I’m thinking of these two events in tandem, even though they work at cross purposes on the surface level: one posits thoughtful criticism as an art that is an antidote to noise, the other is more “service journalism” than art. The two events were good complements to each other in reminding me of the power of good criticism—and considering how much to insert the self into a review or response.

I only have scattered notes from Claudia La Rocco’s lecture, but one exercise stands out: we watched a performance by Lime Rickey International, and she asked us to take notes and review it as it unfolded. Then, near the end of the talk, she read her own observations, as thoughtful and lyrical as one would expect from a poet. Between this and the Experimental Action panel in February, I feel much more prepared to review performance art.

Criticism is a container for people’s confusion
Susan Sontag: rules of taste enforce structures of power
The moral clarity of the immature
There are worse things than being obvious
Practice criticism (remain present and stay open) 
We owe criticism attention and thought
When reviewing or responding to performance art: what does it do to your body? 
David Foster Wallace: To be literate is to feel stupid all the time

What can we do to reduce the noise of social media and instant gratification?

We could do the painstaking work of looking/listening/deepening our thinking

We could create a worthy container for expansive discourse

I didn’t leave this lecture thinking “gee, the next logical step from here is to write restaurant reviews.” I’ve never really had a desire to write them, but I love the day-long workshop format that WriteSpace offers, and I was curious. The day included a history of food reviews (did you know restaurants didn’t really exist before the French Revolution, when all the cooks were put out of work?), reading good and bad examples of reviews, taste testing paired with writing exercises, going out to lunch, and then writing a review of that lunch in the afternoon. I went to the Australian-themed Platypus Brewery and got to gleefully use a lot of bad Australia puns in the review (and the meat pies were DELICIOUS). The other three women in the class were good writers, and Katharine was a totally delightful teacher who graciously took us through an entire issue of Houstonia pointing out how to best pitch each section.

Common threads: listen, educate yourself, and always remember that there are worse things than being obvious.

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After the Women’s March in January, I ducked into a movie theater and watched a Sailor Moon movie. After the Tax Day March on April 15, I did the same with the new live action version of “Beauty and the Beast,” the 1992 animated version of which is probably my favorite Disney movie. I think it’s interesting that I went to see these two Romantic, female-centric films right after both of these marches, but why write about that when I could just list my super hot takes?

  1. Emma Watson is great and all, but if Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame is going to play the beast, Lady Mary should have been Belle. I don’t care if she doesn’t pass for a teenager. In fact, the story would probably be better if Belle had been written a tad more spinstery, and at 35, [totally gorgeous] Michelle Dockery would have been considered that in Renaissance France. “Spinster Belle” would have a more stern authority. Then maybe Belle and the beast would have actually had chemistry, and all of us who were callously [willingly] sucked into “Downton Abbey” could get some payback for Matthew’s clumsy car crash exit.
  2. Why is the librarian in Belle’s village relatively young and attractive? Wouldn’t she have just married him, since he obviously gets her?
  3. Remaking beloved animated classics into live action versions that repeat the script and songs verbatim totally sucks the joy out of the entire endeavor.
  4. The new songs I could take or leave, but I understand why they were added. The emphasis on this sentimental angle isn’t what I would have gone for (see point about “Spinster Belle”) but it was sweet to behold and very Disney.
  5. The credits rolled with French titles, with the English translations artlessly underneath. JUST COMMIT TO ONE ARTISTIC CHOICE, DISNEY. It’s not like we’re still saying “freedom fries.”

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In other “your faves are problematic” news, I read this interview at The Interval with Pam McKinnon, director of the new “Amélie” musical, based on the 2001 film that I still watch sometimes when I’m depressed. The interview is fantastic, but I twitched at some particular language in the intro:

“Netflix describes [the character of Amélie] as impish; a precursor to the manic pixie dream girl, bathed in the same French aesthetic that makes Americans buy books like French Women Don’t Get Fat. How does one turn a très male gaze film into a musical in 2017?”

The twitching is almost certainly because of my teenage attachment to the film (so badass watching it in French class!), but it that phrasing still made it feel like feminist buzzword clickbait. It wasn’t so much as the misuse of the term “manic pixie dream girl” (which the internet shamelessly applies to all cutesy young women even when they’re the protagonist, which makes the term invalid) that irked me as “male gaze.” McKinnon goes on to say that since they barely “let” Amélie speak in the film, even though she’s the main character, she’s being subjugated.

I understand fatigue in terms of the type of women we see in films (and McKinnon was a grown woman when she saw it, while I was a high school student), but here, a shy feminine person is the lead, and it’s hard to see Amélie as being created for male pleasure: she’s dressed in cardigans and combat boots for most of the film, she eschews sex as boring, and she is the pursuer, not the pursued. Maybe it’s just because she’s attractive (in a fiendishly aesthetic film)? Or are McKinnon and the interviewer viewing the fact that she’s shy and doesn’t talk much as a reflection of men’s desires for women to shut up? I’m grasping here.

Amélie is 23 years old—she’s naive, but she takes action, even if it’s twee action that gets her mislabeled as a manic pixie dream girl. It would have been a shitty characterization if Nino or another male character had been the lead and she only existed to help them accomplish their goals, but that wasn’t the case. I know that I’m hauling my adolescent baggage in my critique, but I wish we could recognize different types of heroines without labeling them as manic pixie dream girls.

Defensive griping aside, the musical version is sounding better and better. After the initial disappointment that Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack wouldn’t be included, McKinnon’s account of the creative process has me all excited again.

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Speaking of musicals:

“My family’s story isn’t one that you would have seen in a Hollywood movie or a Broadway musical. For one, it doesn’t conform to stereotypes that white executives and producers have about us. There are no silent and sexualized Asian women. There are no conniving and emasculated Asian men. And there are no white men.

Instead there’s a South Vietnamese English-teacher-turned-soldier, my father, fighting the Viet Cong. He meets a South Vietnamese woman, my mother. They fall in love and exchange letters for two years, before he travels 200 miles, from Qui Nhơn to Đà Lạt, to ask for her hand. There is a turning point, April 30, 1975. The teacher is imprisoned. His wife, now a mother of two, is left alone to support her family.

You won’t see this love story on Broadway. Instead, what you will see is Miss Saigon.”

— Diep Tran at American Theatre: “I Am Miss Saigon, and I Hate It”

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“I miss the days when the most stressful thing about popularity was the sheer uncertainty of the whole enterprise. Back when popularity was cool and aloof, identifiable only by the feelings of desire, envy, and yearning experienced by those who looked upon it. Today, there is no mystery. The metrics of popularity are pervasive and unavoidable. News stories, video clips, music playlists — everything comes with view counts, share counts, and crowdsourced ratings.”

— Maureen O’Connor at The Cut: “Remember When Popularity Was Cool? Now It’s Just Work”

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“It’s very rare that the person who starts a company in their garage or dorm room is equipped to lead it when it has a thousand employees or $150M in revenue. Those are radically different skill sets. So, my purpose here is to criticize the venture capital model for sometimes destroying, as the cost of doing business, perfectly viable, sustainable, and beloved businesses. But also to say that bigger and faster are not always better.”

— Jen Dziura of Get Bullish: “The ‘Failure’ of Feminist Companies is Due to What, Exactly?”

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“In Christian circles, “worldly” is shorthand for being of the world. In Romans 12:2 the apostle Paul encourages Christians not to ‘conform to the patterns of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Many Christians interpret this invective as a call to eschew popular culture…. Engaging in popular culture, we were told, was like shaking hands with someone who has a cold—just by being near them, you risk exposure. And for the faithful, it’s not your immune system at risk, it’s your mortal soul.”

— Lyz Lenz at Hazlitt: “Lead Me On.” Romans 12:2 was always my favorite Bible verse as a kid, but because I purposefully mangled it to mean “outcasts are cool! I prefer to read” instead of how the patriarchs actually mean it. This essay, which pivots on Amy Grant’s fall from grace in the Christian music industry, is a long but worthwhile read.

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“Poetry is political. Period. It has often been remarked that the so-called ‘apolitical’ poem, the objet d’art, is of course political in its acceptance of the status quo. But while I agree with that view, that’s not quite what I’m getting at here. I believe poetry is political because a poet is always both working with and straining against language.”

— Richard Hoffman at AGNI: “Poetry is Dissent”

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“You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine” by Alexandra Kleeman
Novel
Harper Perennial, 2015

I’ve been seeing great reviews of this book for more than a year, and finally picked it up. The narrative follows A, a woman who is roommates with a woman B and dating a man named C. B is creepily trying to mimic and transform herself into A, while C is addicted to pornography and all the characters are addicted to television. This is a special kind of dystopia that already seems like it could be real: C wants him and A to be contestants on a game show called “That’s My Partner!” in which couples try to identify their romantic partners through a series of unsettling challenges; dads, specifically, are disappearing; it’s not uncommon to see bedsheet-wearing families; and “Wallys,” helpful associates at the local superstore who are fully obscured by foam heads, have a very specific workplace code of conduct.

A and B are also addicted to their eating disorder, which is not named but prevalent as it describes their endless search for the right food, and how they end up eating only oranges and popsicles (the reason why this was another not-great “before bed” book for me). The “right food,” for A, is Kandy Kakes. Her description of the commercials featuring Kandy Kat, who desperately wants the Kakes but can never reach them, like Tom chasing Jerry, are the most engaging part of the book. A as Kandy Kat is the conceit. Except what she’s really chasing is far more elusive, muddled by the pervasive static of this recognizable dystopia.

While the story was unpredictable, “a female fight club,” as blurbed by Vogue, it is not. I love Kleeman’s sentences, but the progression of the narrative and meditative tone made the novel feel more like a short story to me. I didn’t find the ending particularly satisfying—but A can’t be satisfied, so why should the reader?

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“The Wangs Vs. The World” by Jade Chang
Novel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

Jade Chang writes the most painfully real failing stand-up routines I’ve ever read in a novel. They are performed by Andrew Wang, the middle Wang child who, at 21 years old, has been pulled out of college by his father’s sudden bankruptcy. The story revolves around the entire Wang family: Charles, the Taiwanese patriarch who is sure there is family land waiting for him in China; Barbra, his childhood classmate and second wife; Saina, Charles’ oldest daughter, a stylish but disgraced artist who has bought a big old house in the Hudson Valley; the aforementioned Andrew, who is also a virgin (by noble choice!); and Grace, the youngest daughter, a 16-year-old fashion blogger who was sent to, and abruptly removed from, boarding school.

When the incredibly rich Wangs realize Charles has lost all their money in a bad business deal, they pack up an old station wagon and drive from L.A. to Saina’s house in upstate New York. Most of the book is about the journey, and the diversion from character to character will make a smooth transition to a Netflix series, if Chang decides to go that route (she lives in L.A. so let’s guess yes). The parts of the book that do not describe bad stand-up routines (most of it) are also excellent. A funny, sly and tender read.

 

 

March 2017: I was much too far out

 

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From the “Chameleon” series by Shawna Gilmore, via The Jealous Curator

4 arts justice reads, 1 play, 3 books, 8 drag queens, 1 travelogue, 1 batch of jumbled thoughts from a representation-in-the-arts panel, 1 stubborn poem

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“You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders.”

— Mary Beard in the London Review of Books: a long but good read about women in power, in literature and real life.

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“Millennial artists and arts managers are starving, broke, indebted, overworked, and wholly taken advantage of by this industry. We have to work other jobs just to be able to afford to work in the theatre. There is no way ‘in.’ It’s increasingly difficult to make the work, to show work, to develop your craft, and secure the funds or pay out of pocket to fulfill the kind of call to action that was being solicited. How can we continue to encourage people to dream this dream? Would you encourage your loved ones to keep driving a car that is running on fumes? How can you eat when everyone is starving?”

— Genée Coreno, my former summer internship roommate and “Lee Miller” in my one-act play, wrote a brave and much-needed treatise for HowlRound.

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“[Women] are conditioned to ever prove ourselves, as if our value is contingent on our ability to meet the expectations of others. As if our worth is a tank forever draining that we must fill and fill. We complete tasks and in some half-buried way believe that if we don’t, we will be discredited. Sometimes, this is true. But here is a question: Do you want to be a reliable source of literary art (or whatever writing you do), or of prompt emails?”

— Melissa Febos, hitting dangerously close to home on Catapult.

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“These images are cliché and hackneyed, because there’s no specificity beyond location—just an opportune moment to display poor subjects needing divine intervention. This is precisely what photography in this moment needs not to do. It needs to be more generous and less exploitive.”

— Seph Rodney at Hyperallergic on Alex Majoli’s documentary photographs and the aestheticization of suffering.

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“Let the Right One In”
Play at the Alley Theatre (National Theatre of Scotland, directed by John Tiffany)
Film (2008, directed by Tomas Alfredson)

I’ve always been too scared to watch the film versions of this adolescent vampire love story, but figured the stage version couldn’t possibly be as frightening. I was right—only one or two jump scares. But the film was also not as scary as I had feared, although that may be because I knew what was coming.

The original story is set in Sweden, but the Scottish theatre company’s heavy accents and still-barren set had a similar affect for an American audience. The set was a climbable forest of birches and the industrial jungle gym where Oskar and Eli meet, with rolling gym lockers and trunks to transform locations (include a dramatic “swimming pool” tank). The whole thing had a very “national theatre” feel to it, with a soaring soundtrack by Olafur Arnald that becomes an additional character and John Hoggett’s choreographed exhortations of emotions in what is, in non-theatrical truth, a very stark story reflected in stark dialogue, mostly between children.

I did appreciate John Tiffany’s direction much more than in his 2013 production of “The Glass Menagerie” at the ART (read more about my feelings on that). I learned that J.K. Rowling specifically wanted him to direct “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” after seeing his “Let the Right One In”; such was the mastery in which he captured the nature of adolescent romance.

Too bad they couldn’t do the cat attack/burst into flames move on stage, though. Also, in the final train scene (totally beautiful onstage), Oskar appeared to have aged into an adult. But in the film, he’s clearly the same 12-year-old, which didn’t pack the same punch of permanent devotion. Film to stage adaptations are always interesting (page to film to stage, in this case); it’s such a clear illustration of how artists’ choices affect the final effect.

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“The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson
Memoir-ish
Graywolf Press, 2015

The style of this unconventional memoir is totally pleasing: nonlinear, self-referential, comfortably academic. And sexy. And short enough to not become a drag. This is the first time I’ve expressly thought of a book as considerate in its intellectual and personal fervor. I’d never read anything quite like it.

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“Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan
Novel
Doubleday, 2013

I read somewhere that the book (which will soon be a film) is “a cross between Jane Austen and ‘Gossip Girl,'” and I can’t really top that description. My contribution: I know I’ve described books in the past as “perfect airplane books” without it being a compliment, exactly. I thought I might be the case with “Crazy Rich Asians,” but by two thirds of the way through I was totally invested, and stayed up way too late to find out what happened. At 403 pages it should take most of a long flight to read–although its descriptions of lavish air travel may be too painful if you’re flying coach. Still, Kwan’s prose is an escape into a very specific world not often depicted in novels, walking a fine line between celebrating and condemning excess.

Oh, I remember where I read that Jane Austen/Gossip Girl comparison: I clicked on this article featuring the newly-cast (and gorgeous) male lead for the film. No regrets.

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“Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel
Graphic memoir
Houghton Mifflin, 2006

I want to see the musical when it comes to Houston, so I figured I’d better read the book first. Expertly sad and lovely, like everyone has been saying since it was published. The narrative alone is compelling, but the illustrations make it transcendent. Looking forward to playing the “how will they adapt it” game when the musical comes to Houston in May—a la “Let the Right One In” this month—although given how quickly I teared up at the 2015 Tony performance of the song “Ring of Keys,” outcomes look good.

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The RuPaul’s Drag Race Hater’s Roast

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PURSE FIRST: Bob the Drag Queen, Trixie Mattel, Kim Chi, Jinkx Monsoon, Acid Betty, Darienne Lake, Phi Phi O’Hara. Not pictured: Ginger Minj (host)

In 2012, RuPaul’s Drag Race officially replaced Project Runway as my must-see reality show. Just have to note that the “Hater’s Roast” is a fabulous event featuring some of the best contestants and, dare I say it, way more fun than just watching lip-syncing performances. Highly recommend to all fans (deep cuts from the show make it not entirely newb-friendly) if the tour comes to your city.

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Me at Joshua Tree

Paul and I drove to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara for spring break—my first time in California. Unfortunately I was sick with a sort throat/cold for most of it and didn’t have the energy to plan excursions as effectively as usual (I can’t believe we didn’t go to LACMA, I blame Sudafed). But it was surreal to see the Hollywood sign, hike up to Griffith Observatory, and see some favorite comedians (we were in the audience for this edition of “Put Your Hands Together” podcast). We saw dear friends, my uncle ,and the Pacific ocean. We resisted so much merchandise at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, although I did get a butter beer.

People have told me that LA is similar to Houston in some ways, and they’re right: it’s huge and sprawling, has awful traffic, and is unreasonably hot. But the scenery is far more beautiful, the highways are wind-y (not sure if that’s a positive, just different), and it has the Pacific instead of the Gulf. And then there’s Houston’s humidity, and Texas senators… maybe it’s wisest to stop comparisons there.

 

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But, here’s a good Houston thing:

I’m not an opera fan and didn’t see the Houston Grand Opera’s (HGO) production of “Nixon in China.” But the Houston Chronicle’s theater critic Wei-Huan Chen did, and while I have characteristically and pettily pegged him as another “breathless Houston theater critic” (how dare you praise something I didn’t like that one time), he is one of the best writers in town and wrote a great critique of the HGO’s use of yellow-face in the production. (Best to read the original article before reading on.)

With that in mind, I jumped at the chance to attend “Representations and 21st Century Responsibilities in the Performing Arts” at the Asia Society on March 31. I love panels. They’re like the internet come alive, except everyone is forced to have real credentials and bear real embarrassment for boneheaded comments. While the event was sparked by Chen’s review, organizers took pains to bill it as a general discussion. But with artistic director of HGO Patrick Summers onstage, I was expecting some direct confrontation.

Of course, that didn’t really happen. The most cringe-worthy moments actually came from other panelists, from my point of view, but it was still disappointing that Summers wasn’t taken to task more handily for at least one question. I don’t mean pitchforks, but couldn’t we have one moment of consequence? Despite the explicit defining of “yellow-face” and “whitewashing” for the discussion, yellow-face didn’t come up at all until the Q&A.

Before Chen could ask his question, an elderly lady (and seeming HGO ringer) asked a question that gave Summers the opportunity to say that he never considers race while casting singers. Her mic wasn’t working properly and she was hurried off, but I heard catches of “horrible Houston Chronicle writer” and an accusation that Chen said that singers should only be cast to characters of their own race. This is a shitty and sadly typical interpretation of the argument, and I wish the panel had challenged her framing.

Granted, I’m not an arts administrator whose organization’s fate rests on the shoulders of subscribers like her. Plus, Q&As are a monstrous time-suck, and the panelists may have felt they couldn’t afford the time. Still, this oversight is in line with Chen’s comment a few moments later: that this feel-good discourse is a get-out-of-racism-free card for “nodding white people.”

The rest of Chen’s question went something like “why is it that no one was talking about this before I wrote the review,” and he was promptly shut down by moderator Sixto Wagan. (Full disclosure: Sixto and I have worked together a few times at UH). “Why is nobody talking about this,” also a noted clickbait headline tool, discounts activists and administrators who have been working on these issues for their whole careers—”probably longer than you’ve been alive,” said Sixto. “This panel and these issues are bigger than just one production.”

It was difficult to come away with a clear takeaway (expected), but from the discussion, it seems like the choice of what to produce and what is written in the first place is the root of the issue—topics far larger than the discussion at hand. Why did HGO choose to do “Nixon in China” if they weren’t going to make an effort to be culturally sensitive? Summers did say they are going to form a task force for future productions, and that they are dedicated to informed dialogue while shaping each production, so that’s something. The panelists’ range of perspectives and experiences, at least, made for an interesting evening. I’m grateful for all Houston artists, administrators, and writers who keep nodding white people uncomfortable and aware.

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Poem stuck in my head, maybe because of this illustration series:

“Not Waving But Drowning” by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

 

 

 

February 2017: I love that

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2 art itches, 2 activism spasms, 1 scientist fight, 8 articles, 3 books, 1 thriller, 1 sweet Star Wars victory

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I wrote about three gallery shows for Aeqai, and I think the title sums it up: Trans rights, melting glaciers, evil-thwarting shields: just another Houston gallery-hop, just another January in America

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Experimental Action, the first performance art festival of its name in Houston (although similar events occurred in recent years), held a panel on the 25th that was billed as something to help people understand performance art. I’m not sure if I have trouble “understanding” performance art, but I sure don’t know how to review it. How do you review an ephemeral experience that no one can pay thousands of dollars for to keep in their homes? (I resisted actually asking the panel about the commodification of performance art, as I’m sure we crafty capitalists can find a way. Related: Shia LaBoeuf didn’t turn up, despite the hashtag.)

Professor Alison Starr gave a good retrospective of performance art starting with the futurists (weirdly, I had just re-read their proto-fascist manifesto), and six artists who had traveled to Houston from around the world to perform. Just as I was starting to wonder if anyone has ever created a performance based on a never-ending, painful audience question (they would just keep asking and asking, as the other audience members get more and more uncomfortable, and then after the question lasting at least 30 minutes, a bucket of blood drops… I’m new at this), Dallas-based artist Christian Cruz offered this phrase: “The medium is the duration.” I love that. That statement alone makes me feel prepared to write a performance art review.

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I marched to the Super Bowl. Best sign:

patriots

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A friend recommended the Citizens Climate Lobby as a good activist group to get involved with. On a whim, I traveled to Austin for their annual Texas meeting. Their whole thing is to champion a carbon fee and dividend solution, and to lobby conservative politicians to make the difference in votes. I learned a lot, everyone was super nice and it was a valuable experience, but the thought of pandering to Republican lawmakers is physically painful to me right now. I mean, when George W. Bush starts to look like a stand-up guy (I know he’s just marketing a book, but still), you know something’s wrong. Better writers than I have written great “I’m still bitter and that’s okay” pieces; I’ll figure out something else.

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I love the UH Energy Symposium series. This month was Going Nuclear: Risk, Odds and Potential. I learned a lot (although there was an unsettling dearth of talk about where nuclear waste actually goes) and discussion was pretty lively. First, an audience member stood up and shouted “WHY ARE YOU LYING TO US?” multiple times while Mark Jacobson, a scientist and academic advocating for 100% sustainable energy (and no nuclear at all) from Berkeley, gave his opening presentation. He carried on and she was quieted by a staff member.

But the real Jerry Springer moments came between Jacobson and Jessica Lovering, Director of Energy at the Breakthrough Institute. Lovering is a nuclear advocate and had a perpetual pitying head-shake going every time Jacobson spoke. Verbal exchanges brought retorts like “that’s just not true” and “I’m a very accomplished scientist, I actually studied this” from him. At one point the moderator had to say, consolingly, “It’s okay, you’re both very accomplished.”

Great snacks, too.

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Grab bag of good articles:

What To Do When a Restaurant Puts A Minimum-Wage Surcharge On Your Bill

The Enduring Wisdom—and Subversion—of Bathroom Graffiti by my awesome grad school classmate, Katie Vagnino

When A Woman Deletes A Man’s Comment Online

Rescuing Norman Rockwell’s Progressive Legacy from a Right-Wing Cartoonist

Why Teaching Civics in America’s Classrooms Must Be a Trump-Era Priority

Blood in the Ice Cream: A Deeper Look At the Cornetto Trilogy – I rewatched “Hot Fuzz” immediately after reading this, no regrets.

5 Random Pieces of Advice for Sensitive-Ass Poets 

Harry Potter and the Lost Generation – perfect Harry Potter/Hemingway parody.

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“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty
2015, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

I love putting in-demand books on my library request list and getting surprise notifications when they’re available. “The Sellout” is discomfiting, razor-sharp and uproarious. It’s about a black man who farms watermelon and weed, ends up keeping another black man (who was one of the original “Little Rascals”) as a slave, and tries to reinstate segregation in his California community. Complicated? Yes. Read slowly to absorb the subtext and jokes. Suggested accompaniment: Beatty’s interview with Rolling Stone.

 

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“100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write” by Sarah Ruhl
2014, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

I’m glad I bought this one: micro-essays by a great playwright that cover philosophy, plays and parenting (and So Much More!). Morsels are another good medium for her.

My favorite essay was #71, “The Age of Commentary.” She describes being at the Tony Awards: “There were many breaks in the show, and I was struck by what the live audience did while the television audience was watching the commercials. You might think that such a lively teeming mass of gifted performers and producers might be laughing, gossiping, dancing in the aisles, looking over their fans at one another’s decolletage. What were these rarefied creatures doing? They were texting. And I thought, The age of experience is truly over; we are entering the age of commentary.” This is a much more Romantic way of describing our collective obsession with cell phones.

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“Get Out,” 2017
Written and directed by Jordan Peele

I can count on one hand the number of horror films I’ve seen in a theater (one was by accident—ugh, “Woman in Black”), but luckily this is more of a thriller. It’s getting rave reviews, so I will save you the spoilers and just tell you to go see it, even if you’re squeamish about the “horror” label. It manages (easily, too recognizably) to be horrifying without torture porn, shaky camerawork and excessive jump scares.

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One of the world’s great babies, Lil’ Sebastian, turned one, and was thrown the most epic Star Wars-themed birthday I have ever attended. And because I knew that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, I won a jellybean dispenser! I mean, LOOK at this cake:
han-solo-cake

January 2017: Introverts March

 

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“Igloo Mobile” – Photo by Charles Pétillon

50,000 women, men and children, 4 good internet reads, 1 zine, 3 plays, 3 books, 3 other lead image candidates

I attended the Women’s March on Austin on January 21st, which ultimately drew more than 50,000 marchers, one of the biggest nationwide (3 million marchers worldwide, total). There ended up with more than 22,000 marchers in Houston, but I was game for an out-of-town experience. The march itself was very family-friendly and maybe a little “safe” in its spread-thin “demands,” but inspiring nonetheless. And it’s always great to hear Wendy Davis speak. To think, we could have had her as governor.

I had some time to kill afterward and ended up at a screening of “Sailor Moon R: the movie” at the Alamo Drafthouse. This decision was based on timing–plus I needed a food and sit-down opportunity–but I’d missed the Sailor Moon phase that so many young women go through, and a movie about superhero girls seemed like an appropriate bookend for the march. I was right: unabashed femme-power, friendship ruling over all, and the goal of making sure that “no one ever has to be alone” made my heart soar.

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Speaking of not being alone, I loved this article from the Ploughshares blog about Dutch poets who write poems for the dead who do not have anyone to mourn them. “The poems are short, stark, and moving speculations on identity and loss…. It addresses our sense of the tragedy of someone dying unclaimed. It attempts to reassure us that no one can leave the world unremarked.”

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More articles on my mind:

Market Rules: How We’ve All Been Reduced to Salespeople – Playwrite Ayad Aktar’s opening remarks at the American Theatre conference. “Art’s great capacity is to renew and to restore. To remind us of death. To cleanse and nourish us. To offer us a path to a clearer and more vivid sense of ourselves and each other. But art in the service of commerce cannot do any of this. Not really. Indeed, art in the service of commerce isn’t really even called art anymore. It’s called content.” Shiver.

Making Art During Fascism – a very good zine by Beth Pickens that is more approachable than it sounds. Click the link and email her for a copy–it’s not available online because parts of it will be published in an upcoming book.

Meltdown of the Phantom Snowflakes – Laurie Penny at the Baffler

Trump’s Planned Elimination of Violence Against Women Grants is Pure Cruelty – Slate

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“Matt & Ben” by Brenda Withers and Mindy Kahling
Rogue Productions at Stages Repertory Theater
I loved this play when I saw it at Central Square Theater in 2011 (click the link for more details about the zany concept), so I wasn’t going to miss it here. Rogue Productions is a new company in town, headed by our Matt and Ben: Rachel Logue and Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, respectively. Showcasing their comedic chops was a smart way to start their tenure; I’m looking forward to their next show, whatever that may be.

“Book of Mormon” by Matt Stone and Trey Parker
Broadway Across America – Hobby Center
I haven’t made an effort to see big budget shows in a while, and it took a gift card to get me to one. But, I ultimately had to know what the fuss has been about all these years. The musical has moments of genius and of course the performances were wonderful, but the humor felt a little ten-years-ago. But, what do I know — ticket sales and Tony awards speak for themselves, I guess.

“The Johns” by Mary Bonnett
Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Company at Studio 101 through February 4
Mildred’s Umbrella was contacted specifically about producing “The Johns,” originally produced in Chicago as a part of a series by Mary Bonnett, because of their specific women’s rights-centric mission. With a panel of Houston experts and advocates preventing sex trafficking available after the show, they’ve taken care to make sure the play’s message sticks. Houston is a huge sex trafficking hub, and the timing of the production around the city hosting the Super Bowl was not coincidental.

A difficult play to watch, although unfortunately part of that is writing that is a little too on the nose, a little too clunky, particularly with the “john” characters. Still, powerful performances and a powerful message. It’s almost refreshing to hear male characters brazenly offering their views on women out loud, instead of just showing it with their actions.

I would, just once, like to see one of these pieces give sex workers something more to say than “my life is terrible and I am terrible but I’m also so sexy.” While that may be accurate for a trafficked 14-year-old (and Mary Bonnett did an incredible amount of research here), it’s still a play. I’m not asking for a happy ending, just a fuller character.

The action does pick up in the second act, and Sarah Gaston gave a standout performance as Grace, the upper-class mother whose son and husband are both unknowingly patronizing the same underage prostitute. I wish I had left with more of a sense of how trafficking happens, and the humanity of those trafficked–but the point was to show the impact it made on an upper-class family. Perhaps the other plays in Bonnett’s series address these facets of the issue. With the Trump administration already set to slash funding to violence against women initiatives, these messages are all the more poignant.

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“Lydia’s Funeral Video” by Samantha Chanse
Playscript, with illustrations and footnotes: 2015, Kaya Press

I saw Sam Chanse perform part of this one-woman show at the 2014 AWP conference in Seattle, carried around the cool oversized promotional postcard through two moves (one cross country), and finally ordered a copy of it last month. Divine providence, I guess, since abortion access is a major theme of this comedy. The premise: in the not-so-distant future, Lydia Clark-Lin discovers she is pregnant when her fetus speaks to her in a dream, giving her instructions to kill herself in 28 days and shoot a “funeral video.” In this reality, Planned Parenthood has been shut down completely, and all abortions are illegal after 28 days. Lydia’s best friend, Bernie, is an activist abortion provider who sees patients in armored tanks, such is the vitriol she faces. I wish this were less relevant, but the play itself is hilarious, heartfelt and original.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot
Non-fiction: 2010, Random House Publishing
Henrietta Lacks died in 1952 from cervical cancer, and I haven’t been able to shake one particular description from this book: that her body, when autopsied, looked as though it was full of pearls, so many were the tumors. The lead photo for this blog entry (from a series found via Colossal) reminded me of that. But the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family isn’t that her illness was particularly remarkable, savage though it was: it is because her rapidly reproducing cancer cells have proven nearly impossible to kill and have become ubiquitous in medical studies, since they are so hardy and inexpensive to reproduce. While her cells have been sold to researchers for decades, her own family wasn’t made aware of what was happening, and while their matriarch’s cells play a crucial role in medical research, they themselves can’t afford health insurance. Highly enjoyable read–I’m looking forward to see how they execute the upcoming HBO series, starring Oprah as Henrietta’s late daughter, Debra.

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi
Novel: 2016, Knopf
I can see why this is one of the most lauded novels of 2016. It follows the descendants of Effia and Esi, two sisters who do not know of the other’s existence, in 18th-century Ghana. One marries a white slaver; the other becomes a slave, living in the dungeons below her sister’s quarters before being taken to America. Though we only get one chapter with each character as the story goes from generation to generation, Gyasi picks her moments perfectly.

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I was torn between lead images this month. Here are the other options:

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Illustration by Devery Dolman via Facebook and Custom Ink

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Collage by Sarah Gerard, accompanying her column, Mouthful, on Hazlitt.

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Image capture from “The Last Unicorn”. After watching Sailor Moon, I was hungry for more animation. We had this on VHS when I was a kid, but I barely remember any of it. I think we might have bought it because my dad liked the music; the America soundtrack takes aim at dads with a laser focus. I appreciated it now, can see why I didn’t go for the slow, symbolic story as a kid.

 

December 2016: Romantic Retrospective

 

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I chose this picture months ago. An unwitting memorial to George Michael, now…

 

6 takeaways, 1 paragraph about good things, 4 favorite art shows, 6 other frissons du coeur, 1 call to poetry action, 23 baby pandas

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A few truths from 2016:
Let people mourn in their own way.
There is no way to exist without hurting others.
We have choices about who we hurt.
We have choices about what we consume.
Hate speech is not free speech.
Talk to yourself like your encouraging editor, not your unhelpful editor.

I’ll figure something out in 2017.

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Amazing friend and family visits in 2016. Parents, J&N and S came to Houston in the Spring (at different times). I learned that an entire rock band can sleep in our living room. Paul and I saw family in the summer and again at Christmas. We learned to road trip together. I made new friends, saw great art, started giving blood, and admitted to myself that my time is valuable enough to justify getting my own car. I’m coming at Trump’s America from a place of strength, which is a blessing and one of countless privileges I enjoy.

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I’m grateful for my continued writing gig at aeqai: a monthly issue is enough to get me out and about in town, and editor Daniel Brown is a joy to work with. Favorite art reviews I’ve written in 2016 include:

Gonzo247 and the Nation’s First Graffiti Museum
My friend is sister-in-law to Gonzo, whose art and art advocacy has literally shaped Houston. He and his wife, Carolyn, are so fantastic and forthcoming—and the art ain’t bad either.

The School for the Movement of the Technicolor People
Permission, erasure, inclusion—challenging and inviting at once. A show to linger in.

“I should have brought a philosopher”
Kristin Lucas’s “Refresh” zine is something I still think about on a regular basis.

Black & White, the KKK, and the Enduring Banality of Evil
Vincent Valdez’s painting chills. We need it to tour extensively.

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Other Favorite Art/Literature Frissons Du Coeur in 2016:

“Intimate Apparel” by Lynn Nottage at the University of Houston
Nottage’s tale of a black seamstress in 1905 New York is devastating and Romantic. The key players were phenomenal, the set ethereally period. Completely agree with director Sarah Becker in this preview: “Some plays could just as easily be movies—with a matter-of-factness about their locations and clothing. But this play has theatricality; a dreaminess to it.”

“The Hunchback Variations” by Mickle Maher at the Catastrophic Theatre
This was the only review I could find of the play (it’s from 2015, but they brought it back in 2016), and I don’t agree with “the verdict,” although the author is right about its weirdness. It’s the only thing I’ve seen at Catastrophic so far that’s been really satisfying, which is strange, seeing as “Hunchback” is a 40-minute play that answers no questions.

“The Nether” by Jennifer Haley at the Alley Theatre
The Alley has so much well-produced fluff on its main stage, I was almost proud of it for bringing such a provocative play to Houston. (Here’s another review for background—again, I don’t entirely agree with it, but it gives a good sense of the show.) I don’t think anyone in the audience was fully prepared—I saw at least three people walk out once they realized it explicitly dealt with child molestation and murder (in a virtual realm, but still). Not exactly something the Alley could dare to advertise. The physical presence of a child actor made the play powerfully disturbing. You couldn’t tell this story on TV, even though the play was inspired by “Law and Order”-type procedurals, or in a movie, because then the shocking, graphic acts would have to be portrayed. While we don’t see the child harmed in the action of the play, the internet-padded, lace-lined undertones of violence—and humanity—overwhelm.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (film)
Of course I’m going to love a film directed by Taika Waititi. Just majestical.

Bob Parks at the Brandon
See September entry

“We Love You Charlie Freeman” (novel) by Kaitlyn Greenidge
See November entry

“The Judgment of Fools” by Bernardo Cubria/Horsehead Theatre Co. 
See November entry

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[Poets] are, I believe, deeply sensitive. We are barometers, like roaches are. We have our little antennas up. We know when the light’s gonna come on—we are picking up on the currents of what is happening in our society right now. We would like to heal and awaken people. That’s part of the power poets have always had.

—Loueva Smith, delightful Texan and stellar poet. Read my full interview here.

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23 baby pandas:

Happy New Year to us all.

Image/Pinterest

October 2016: The Old Divination Standby

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“Aries” by Eugenia Loli, from her new zodiac collection. Really kind of her to use a picture that looks just like my grandma in the 60s for my astrological sign.

1 (unsettling) art review, 3 interviews, 1 exaggerated headline, 1 Screwtape musing, 1 accidental feminist classic, 1 of many similarities between me and Ron Weasley, 1 report from Australia, 2 Halloween costumes

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Black & White, the KKK, and the Enduring Banality of Evil: “The Beginning is Near (Part 1)” by Vincent Valdez
October issue of Aeqai (9-minute read)

“The City I” by Vincent Valdez

Vincent Valdez’s first solo show in 10 years was phenomenally eerie, important and complex. The unsettling centerpiece is more than 30 feet long and six feet high, and not one, but TWO middle-aged couples skittered in and out nervously while I was at the gallery.

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America has a long and proud tradition of taking in individuals and families who are fleeing violence and persecution, including my parents. Houston has always played a significant role in resettling refugees. When a city takes in victims of tragedy, it demonstrates to the world its compassion and humanity. Houston should continue to set an example for the country and the world.

–Teresa Messer, immigration attorney. Her parents were refugees of the Vietnam War, and now she serves immigrants and refugees in her home city.

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“Quiet leadership” is something I learned to emphasize during the M.A., or the idea that you can lead by example. You don’t always have to be that extrovert leading the charge — that’s not what leadership is all of the time. Leadership is listening, assessing, finding the people and matching them to their strengths, and you can only do that by listening and assessing.

–Alyson Landry, Professional Communications instructor at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I wish I’d been able to take her class in high school!

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My responsibilities of my new appointment is to manage the day-to-day operations of critical access hospital that serves a community of 12,000 Native Americans and Alaskan Natives in the Cass Lake Minnesota area. My goals are to collaborate with local tribes to foster a relationship of cooperation.

–Dr. Robert Brady Malone, who simultaneously earned an M.B.A. and his doctorate in medicine, and is now the CEO of Cass Lake Hospital in Minnesota. I conducted this interview before the protest at Standing Rock was widely visible — I would have liked to ask him about how it affects his constituents, if at all.

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Favorite exaggerated headline: Thousands of Wild Buffalo Appear Out of Nowhere at Standing Rock

In reality, from what I can gather on the internet, about a hundred of them were purposefully released by protesters nearby. But the appearance of a sacred animal in a time of injustice… morale is morale and it doesn’t get more poetic.

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Speaking of spirituality: this passage of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” in which an elder demon gives epistolary advice to his young demon-nephew about how to sway humans toward their “father below,” is indeed more appropriate than ever this election season:

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I briefly dated a guy who flippantly said that C.S. Lewis is an idiot. Key word: “briefly.” Regardless of your thoughts on Christianity, “The Screwtape Letters” is a damn classic.

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Another damn classic: “George of the Jungle,” the 1997 kids movie starring Brendan Fraser. Having a cold will do funny things to a person, and on a sick day this month I found myself renting and watching this movie in its entirety. Why, you ask? Because I read this super right-on Tumblr analysis of how it’s a femininst flick, and felt slightly less bad about how much I liked it as a kid. Does it hold up? Not necessarily — you have to be eight or nine years old to truly appreciate it. But the analysis is still right-on, and I was delirious while watching anyway.

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I’ve been rereading Harry Potter before bed, and was tickled to find that in “The Goblet of Fire,” Ron Weasley perfectly sums up how I survived a number of avant garde movements, including surrealism, in a French literature class in college. It’s not that I dislike the avant garde — I was just very, very bad at French. But, I got much higher marks in that class than in any of my other French classes using similar tactics to Weasley in the hapless wizards’ Divination class:

“You know,” said Ron, whose hair was on end because of all the times he had run his fingers through it in frustration, “I think it’s back to the old Divination standby.”
“What — make it up?”
“Yeah,” said Ron, sweeping the jumble of scrawled notes off the table, dipping his pen into some ink, and starting to write.
“Next Monday,” he said as he scribbled, “I am likely to develop a cough, owing to the unlucky conjunction of Mars and Jupiter.” He looked at Harry. “You know [Professor Trelawney] — just put in loads of misery, she’ll lap it up.”

It’s surrealism, Harry.

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Jane Howard on the state of Australia’s culture of art criticism:

Criticism works in conversation. This conversation takes many shapes: the conversation between critic and art, between critic and reader, between critic and critic. . . . But we’ve lost these conversations. . . . And the less this conversation exists, the less it is able to exist.

Here’s to keeping the conversation going, even if it’s about “George of the Jungle.”

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Happy Halloween from the bridesmaid from hell and thift-store Thor:

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Cover Image/“Aries” by Eugenia Loli