March 2018: Spectacle, or Spectacular

EndNotes_Caregiver-1024x576

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.

*

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.

*

“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.

*

“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

*

“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.

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

*

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.

*

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!

A pink rose with beady eyes and fanged mouth drawn on

February 2018: The President of Love

A pink rose with beady eyes and fanged mouth drawn on

Angela Deane via The Jealous Curator

*

That horror [of Sandy Hook] cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch.

Ann Friedman shared “Our Moloch” by Garry Wills, originally published in NY Magazine in 2012, in her recent newsletter in light of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. Sacrifice. I can’t stop thinking about it in these terms, now. God stepped in to stop Abraham from sacrificing his son. Can’t see guns, the NRA, or GOP doing that anytime soon.

The students behind the Never Again movement are mostly theater kids, and there’s been some good writing about that (on blogs and in the New Yorker). And now seems like the right time for some Gawker-ish rudeness, and there’s always a discussion to be had about mental health in schools.

Seriously though, do you get Ann Friedman’s newsletter? (I found the rudeness article there, too.) I’m becoming increasingly dependent on newsletters for reading recommendations as social media becomes less and less palatable. WTF Just Happened Today (news), Jocelyn Glei (creativity/productivity), Submittable’s Submishmash, Literary Hub… all chock full of good (or at least informative) stories and delightfully devoid of internet commenters.

*

A line I wrote this month: “In 2018, who even does a double take at a 51 ¾ x 84 inch close-up of a hairless mons pubis?”

Read more about “HARD: Subversive Representation” in my review for ÆQAI , up through March 9.

*

I wrote a LinkedIn post for the first time, which is really just a little link round-up of a few cross-professional lessons (including one of my Lunar Cougar interviews): “But Isn’t This Supposed to be Fun?” A Few Widely Applicable Career Tips from the Film Industry

Click for the cute critter-on-video-camera picture I found, if nothing else.

*

One way we judge the values we’re experimenting with is via exposure to their consequences. We all need to know how others feel when we treat them one way or another, to help us decide how we want to treat them. Similarly, an architect needs to know what it’s like to live in the buildings she designs. When the consequences of our actions are hidden, we can’t sort out what’s important.

“How to Design Social Systems (Without Causing Depression and War)” by Joe Edelman. A comprehensive, heartening how-to guide for fixing social media.

*

Facebook is essentially running a payola scam where you have to pay them if you want your own fans to see your content…. It’s like if The New York Times had their own subscriber base, but you had to pay the paperboy for every article you wanted to see. The worst part is that as an artist, it feels like your own fault. We’re used to a world where if you put something out there that’s good, people see it and share it. But that’s just not true in this world. 

“How Facebook is Killing Comedy,” an interview with Matt Klinman by Sarah Aswell for Splitsider

*

“Hack your way to success.” “Meet the right people.” “Become a business superstar”…. What is missed in all of this is the mindset of craftsmanship; that one’s expertise and deliberate focus on one’s craft is actually the primary driver for success and not some crapshoot of a series of hacks.

“Craftsmanship ― The Alternative to the Four Hour Work Week Mindset” by Daniel Tawfik via Medium

*

Nostalgia has a dark side. There is a toxic fetishism for the past in America, a yearning to return to a time before everything got so damn complicated. America seems always to believe the past was a purer time. This is of course bullshit; the past only seems purer because we don’t know it anywhere near as intimately as we do the present, and purity cannot survive intimacy.

 “In the Dark All Katz Are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia” by Samuel Ashworth for Hazlitt. Great long read with a “Dirty Dancing” hook.

*

The debates over so-called “color blind” and “color conscious” casting have been heated in recent years, especially when a theatre’s decisions do not align with a playwright’s wishes…. More often, however, the shoe is on the author foot, so to speak. What should you, as a playwright, do when a theatre does ask if they can depart from your character descriptions, leaving you to determine how color- and gender-conscious the play must be?

“Conscious Casting and Letting Playwrights Lead” by David Valdes Greenwood for HowlRound. An thoughtful discussion that doesn’t come to any hard conclusions about this hot-button issue, but takes an interesting, playwright-centered approach.

*

January is typically a month when even the most adventurous New York theatregoers brace for the unexpected at the many theatre festivals that coincide with the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. I was struck this year by how many works of theatre I saw in January that used words (if they used them at all) in unorthodox ways.

“Do Words Matter on Stage?” by Jonathan Mandell for HowlRound. The whole “plays vs. film” argument is that film is more visual, while plays are dialogue driven, but the new works discussed here turn that notion on its head. It’s good to remember the visual, spectacular capability of plays, and the in-person jolt that films can’t provide.

*

We often tell students to write what they know, but in practice, our classes teach them to write what we like. Instead, we ought to be helping them write what they want to read.

“Don’t Make Students Write What You Want To Read” by Michael Noll for the Pleiades blog

*

As social practice has increasingly aligned itself with specific community activism—just as it tells you (also increasingly) what to think and how to feel—Bilal and Postcommodity embrace the gray areas thrown up by human behavior through the wider, longer lens of conflict. Their work doesn’t resolve in any pat way…. They make themselves almost painfully vulnerable to interaction and people’s very mixed reactions to the work. The lack of self-righteousness by these artists is—in our era of Instagram egoism, slick self-branding, and market-driven art (even market-driven ‘political’ art)—pretty dazzling. 

“Swimming With Sharks”: Postcommodity and Wafaa Bilal in a Sea of Hammerheads” by Christina Rees for GlassTire

*

They fueled each other’s creativity, but Shigeko Kubota’s substantial legacy became overshadowed by her husband’s equally formidable work…. “Even when I did my own stuff, people said, ‘She imitates Nam June.’ I found it infuriating. So I headed further in the direction of [Marcel] Duchamp. When Nam June went populist, I went for high art.”

“How Shigeko Kubota Pioneered Video as a Personal Medium” by Karen Kedmey for Artsy. Another good (but basic) Artsy profile of a female artist I hadn’t heard of: “The Unlikely Success of Edmonia Lewis, a Black Sculptor in 19th Century America.” 

*

I know several women who easily ignored the grim warnings, who used The Baby Book purely as medical reference. Not me. In those dark winter weeks after giving birth, I became increasingly gripped by the story’s central conflict: Mama’s desires are dangerous; Baby is vulnerable. 

“The Baby, the Book, and the Bathwater” by Heather Abel for the Paris Review

*

The possibility of enormous ice caps melting, releasing pressure, and contributing to volcanic eruptions remains. And with the world warming and glaciers disappearing, the possibility of powerful eruptions to come is growing. 

— “Volcanoes Get a Kick from Climate Change” — Michael Tennesen for Hakai Magazine

*

“Red Clocks” by Leni Zumas
2018, Little, Brown and Company
Novel – 368 pages

Hadn’t heard vaginas referred to as “red clocks” before, so I appreciated the yonic cover illustration here. But now I like the term, as I liked this book and its five central charactersyes, I count the fictional 19th-century Arctic explorer, Eivør Minervudottir, as a central character. She is the research subject of one the book’s four speakers (“the biographer”each speaker has a label), and excerpts from the biography-in-progress separate each speaker’s chapters.

Each character navigates a near-future where abortion has been made illegal, and the impending “every child needs two” act prohibits single parents from adopting. The biographer, a single high school teacher, desperately tries to conceive via artificial insemination before the act takes hold. The daughter, one of her students, seeks an abortion. The mender, a “young crone” who has separated herself from society, is jailed and tried for allegedly performing an abortion. And “the wife” deals with the middle class trappings of motherhood we’ve come to expect from novels like thisthe ones that hang their stories on complex (read “unlikeable”) female protagonists.

When the voices become too many, Eivør’s hardship in the wilderness is grounding. When the characters evade confrontation that would make for a more explosive storyline, Leni Zumas’s sentences and research save the day.

*

“Some of Us Did Not Die” by June Jordan
2003, Civitas Books
Essays – 320 pages

Abridged feelings: every person should get a copy of “Notes Toward a Model of Resistance,” and the immediate aftermath of 9/11 feels like so long ago.  Probably a book I should buy so no one reserves it out from under me at the library again.

*

“Priestdaddy” by Patricia Lockwood
2017, Riverhead Books
Memoir – 352 pages

It is hazardous to read “Priestdaddy” in bed with another person who is already asleep, as it’s hard to contain your laughter. Beyond that, I would often just *have* to wake up my husband sometimes because I knew he would appreciate some loopy anecdote or wordplay, namely about dad rock or pooping your pants while on a hunting trip. But “Priestdaddy” is not a run-of-the-mill check-out-my-nutty-family memoir; Lockwood’s poet heart makes sure of that.

*

“Nomad Americana,” a new play by Kira Rockwell
Fresh Ink Theatre Company at Boston Playwrights Theatre

Love seeing new plays from Fresh Ink, and “Nomad Americana” had some beautifully rhythmic scenes and an especially wonderful performance from Khloe Alice Lin as Stormi Echo, the younger daughter of the nomadic Echo family. But the play is pulled thematically in a few too many directions, and a lack of tension makes some storylines fall flat. Super enjoyable characters, but I think this one has another workshop left in it.

*

Last week, it was my great honor to be elected President of Love, a tradition that began in 2014. I ran on a platform of reforming the love-bank, and abolishing all love-debt on an annual basis. It would be a bit too ambitious to propose a gold standard of love. Still radical, though, to admit love’s currency, and how much we have in circulation.

 

May 2017: You don’t imagine them, they become unreal

mo willems

Drawing by Mo Willems via Twitter

1 dangerous mindset, 2 exhibitions at the MFAH, 2 very different states of loneliness, 1 Texas politician, 1 different approach to fundraising, 3 books, 2 big shows, 1 only slightly manipulative soundtrack, 1 Hello Kitty tank

*

Jocelyn K. Glei’s concise article about the “what else?” mindset—in which we are always eager to move on to the next project instead of celebrating accomplishments, or exploring a topic further—is always appropriate. I highly recommend her weekly newsletter about productivity in the digital age, and taking time to appreciate and respond to accomplishments before moving on to the “next thing.”

*

I reviewed Ron Mueck and “Adiós Utopia” for aeqai: both contain excellent work, but derive value from very different places. Ron Mueck is up through August. Here’s the picture of his head that’s been all over town:

head-450x338

“Self portrait” by Ron Mueck

*

When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters.

—Rebecca Solnit for LitHub. The full essay, “The Loneliness of Donald Trump,” is beautiful enough to let your mind to dwell on him for a few minutes.

*

Asked recently which three writers she would invite to a “literary dinner party,” the prose stylist Fran Lebowitz offered the definitive desert island list: “None. I would never do it. My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book. That’s my idea of a literary dinner party.”

—Jason Guriel for The Walrus. I have a feeling that writers probably don’t like this piece—“What Happens When Authors Are Afraid To Stand Alone”—but the essay is friendlier than its ominous headline suggests, and doesn’t actually paint a comprehensive picture of this codependent future (unless we’re already in it?). It’s nice to remember there’s an alternative to the behavior that the internet and capitalism demands.

*

The ones that helped make us great, that helped make the Texas miracle—we’re looking to throw them out like they’ve done nothing for us. We’re talking about people who have been here for 30-40 years and were treating them as trash that we can throw away.

—Gene Wu (D-Houston), one of our amazing representatives on the abhorrent SB-4 bill, at Roads and Kingdoms.

*

I believe in many of the tenets of donor-centrism—don’t treat donors like ATMs, appreciate every gift of any amount, don’t take donors for granted, build relationships, be transparent, etc. I just don’t believe that donors should be in the center of nonprofit work, or even the center of fundraising work.

—Vu Le at Nonprofit AF, in a typically excellent and entertaining exploration of how donor-centrism facilitates inequity. 

*

“Hausfrau” by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Novel
Random House, 2015

As I read this retelling of “Anna Karenina,” I was lulled into such a sense of security that I forgot the inevitable ending. Not to say that it is a relaxing book. I squirmed throughout at the “unlikable woman” protagonist, who is of course called Anna: an American housewife stranded in Switzerland with her Swiss husband and three young children. She struggles with the language, sees a cold therapist, and has multiple affairs that we waste no time getting to in the text.

I squirmed because I couldn’t help picturing and casting it as a film adaptation, and how much viewers would hate her complications. I hate that this is where my mind goes. Her story is captivating because Jill Alexander Essbaum is a masterful writer (I love her poetry and was definitely not disappointed by her prose), weaving passages throughout that remove us from Anna’s failings and through larger truths:

The Doktor continued. “Every mask becomes a death mask when you can no longer put it on or take it off at will. When it conforms to the contours of your psychic face. When you mistake the personal you project for your living soul. When you can no longer distinguish between the two.” 66-67

The five most frequently used German verbs are all irregular. Their conjugations don’t follow a pattern: To have. To have to. To want. To go. To be. Possession. Obligation. Yearning. Flight. Existence. Concepts all. And irregular. These verbs are the culmination of insufficiency. Life is loss. Frequent, usual loss. Loss doesn’t follow a pattern either. You survive it only by memorizing how. 205

I sometimes need to just let books be books, I think. I’m falling into the “what else?” or “what next?” mindset that demands more. Just let it be what it is: a beautifully constructed, viscerally sad book.

*

“Dietland” by Sarai Walker
Novel
Mariner Books, 2015

I bundled this with “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” (reviewed in April), which might have been a mistake: two body-centric, eating-disordered books in one month? At least “Dietland” is more fun, even if the ending fell a little flat. I loved shy, overweight Plum Kettle as a heroine who doesn’t achieve the transformation she expected, but transforms nonetheless. As a satirical revenge fantasy, “Dietland” is delicious.

*

“Shoot Like A Girl” by Mary Jennings Hegar
Memoir
Berkley, 2017

Mary Jennings Hegar was an air force medevac pilot who deployed to Afghanistan multiple times, and her approachable memoir details not only combat situations, but her experience as a woman in the military. Main takeaway: this book would be a great addition to high school English classes. It’s easy to read and a common-sense primer on sexism in the military and out, with a personable, patriotic narrator. I wish I knew a 13-year-old girl or boy so I could give them a copy.

*

“Snow White” by Donald Barthelme
Play – Catastrophic Theatre

When the New Yorker covers a Houston world premiere, you know it’s time to get tickets. “Snow White” did not disappoint: midcentury weirdo perfection, with satisfying monologues, flamboyant overtures, and charismatic choreography. Ryan McGettigan’s set was a star in itself. I only thought of my past playwriting student’s totally inappropriate, kinky interpretation of the Snow White story a few times. If only this had been public a few years earlier, I could have showed it to her.

*

“Fun Home,” based on the book by Alison Bechdel
Playwright and lyricist: Lisa Kron
Composer: Jeanine Tesori
Theatre Under the Stars (National Tour)

Great musical, but I would have killed to see it in an intimate theater instead of the Hobby Center. It’s a musical of intimate relationships and the most intimate of physical spaces: the home. The low-key show just didn’t have the grandeur to fill the hall.

That missing grandeur is what Andrea Lepcio is talking about in the first few paragraphs of her recent essay in HowlRound, which ended up being very timely, given the show’s tour. Two points in particular stuck out: 1) there is still a man at the center of “Fun Home,” moreso in the musical than the book, I’d say, and 2) where are the woman-centered musicals where their actions are as big as, say, “Hamilton”? One commenter points to “Evita,” which is the only one I can think of.

That would be the end of the review, except I have to mention how much I loved the blue-hairs who went in with no idea what it was about. I heard them chattering afterward, bewildered. Most didn’t like it. So, I will like it twice as hard to spite them.

*

“Guardians of the Galaxy 2”
Bonafide popcorn flick

I don’t want to delve too deep into this film, but I have to note the soundtrack. The first “Guardians” film featured a mixtape made for the main character, Peter Quill aka Star Lord, by his mother in the 1980s (“Awesome Mix”). This gave filmmakers the opportunity to feature a bunch of 70s and 80s hits, which of course conjure immediate connotations for the majority of the audience. I’ve heard it argued that this blinds us to the quality of the film, and that we only like it for the tunes, not the action.

I don’t think that was particularly true for the first film, since the tape was immediately introduced as an integral part of the main character’s background, but the second film leaned in a little too hard on the classic mix. “Mr. Blue Sky” at the beginning and “Father and Son” at the end was a perfect balance: most everything in between, especially “My Sweet Lord” (yes, really), felt gratuitous.

But ultimately it’s a lot of fun, especially Kurt Russell’s Farrah Fawcett haircut and bellbottoms. And with that, I’ve said enough.

*

Mood for Memorial Day weekend:

Press-Corps

Drawing by Argyle C. Klopnik, Esq. via The Rumpus

April 2017: The Sheer Uncertainty of the Whole Enterprise

 

daffodil

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

*

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.

*

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.”

*

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.

*

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”

*

“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”

*

“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?”

*

“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.

*

“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”

*

“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?

*

“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

 

shawnagilmore_crop

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

*

“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.

*

“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.

*

“[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.

*

“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.

*

“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.

*

“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.

*

“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.

*

“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.

*

The RuPaul’s Drag Race Hater’s Roast

IMG_20170330_203057_038

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.

*

IMG_20170312_152544147.jpg

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.

 

*

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.

*

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

candy-heart

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

*

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

*

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.

*

I marched to the Super Bowl. Best sign:

patriots

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

“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.

 

*

“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.

*

“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.

*

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

 

igloo-mobilexlarge-1473890396

“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.

*

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.”

*

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

*

“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.

*

“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.

*

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

16195559_630200217172463_1036249492476129670_n

Illustration by Devery Dolman via Facebook and Custom Ink

installment5_medium-jpg-resize

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

unicorn_wave_with_background_cel

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

 

las-christmas

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

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

***

[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.

***

23 baby pandas:

Happy New Year to us all.

Image/Pinterest

November 2016: I thought I’d have a different caption for this photo

14682096_10154006966053364_332956270732677827_o

I thought the caption would be about Hillary defeating Trump and soaring into the sunset to prepare for four years of especially gross misogyny. I guess I was right on one count.

3 interviews, 1 art review, 1 Terrance Hayes, 2 novels, 1 therapeutic theater date, 7 action items, 5 righteous reads, 1 Thanksgiving road trip

*

Here’s what I wrote on Facebook on November 9 as an intro to my inverview with John Pluecker: “I was aggravated that (by total coincidence) my first interview for Public Poetry came out today, of all days, when we are mourning, not self-promoting. But it’s actually pretty relevant. John Pluecker is an activist (and experimental poet, with a cool new book), and we talked about language justice and what it means to be a social justice interpreter, among other things.

Check it out and get motivated, because that’s what has to happen next. Make sure to drink a lot of water because crying will give you a headache.”

*

Our focus here at the museum is to educate the entire community — not just the Jewish community — on the importance of the lessons of the Holocaust: fighting hatred, apathy, and prejudice. Taking those lessons and communicating them effectively to the public is our mission.

Kelly Zúñiga, CEO of the Holocaust Museum of Houston

*

The way I see it, we’re not in business just to make money. Of course, that’s a big part of it but we want our efforts to mean so much more. Growing up, I watched my family act in ways with such big hearts towards other people that it just became a part of who I am.

Moon Jamaluddin, principal/founder of Events By Momo

*

Reclaiming Material Responsibility: Blake Rayne and Analia Saban at Blaffer Art Museum

I loved one of these artists and was lukewarm on the other, so yay, I got some practice trying to write a not-glowing review. One of my favorite pieces, “Draped Marble” by Analia Saban, is pictured below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

*

I had no idea that the brilliant poet Terrance Hayes is also a visual artist. Luckily I found out about a presentation he was doing at the Menil Collection at the last minute, about the relationship between drawing and writing. I had a little bit of trouble finding his work online, but this article in 1839 has some great examples.

*

“We Love You Charlie Freeman”
Kaitlyn Greenidge
2016, Algonquin Books

I read most of this fantastic debut novel in a day. It’s about an African-American family who move to the Berkshires in 1990 to “adopt” a chimp named Charlie and communicate with him via sign language (in which they are all fluent). But it’s really about their family, and the deep wounds of racism throughout American history that have yet to heal. In light of the election, themes of casual (and overt) white supremacy, guilt vs. shame, and desperate stabs at happiness are especially poignant.

*

“Hag-Seed”
Margaret Atwood
2106, Hogarth Shakespeare Series

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is a silly yet beautiful work, and Atwood’s is no different, albeit touching in more immediate sense. Artistic Director Felix, our Prospero, is ousted by his theater company just as he is about to mount his “Tempest” onstage. He becomes a hermit and eventually winds up teaching Shakespeare at a prison, with inmates as performers. When he starts directing them in “The Tempest,” his own plot for revenge unfolds. Yes, it’s ridiculous, especially the words Atwood puts in the inmates’ mouths. But Shakespeare’s “Tempest” is no less ridiculous, and who expects anything else than storytelling mastery from Atwood? I hope that high schools start teaching this alongside “The Tempest.”

*

Speaking of cathartic theater: I saw Horsehead Theatre Co.’s “The Judgment of Fools” on November 12, four days after the election. The actors (Fool 1, Fool 2, etc.) mingled with audience members before the show started, taking selfies and chatting about the finer oddities of their costumes. The opening recording encouraged guests to not to turn their cell phones off — “Because what if this play is fucking boring?” — and the “head fool” encouraged us to heckle the actors at any time, or to run onstage and stop a scene with the big red bullhorn perched just offstage.

The fools enacted scenarios, and we were encouraged to vocally judge them. “Shout ‘slut’ when I reach a point in my story in which you think I was acting like a slut,” said one actor. (When someone jokingly did so after two words of her story, she genuinely asked why, ready to hear his answer.) An unwitting volunteer became a contestent in a “stereotype pageant.” One audience member’s facebook page was projected onto a screen, and the audience encouraged to judge him by it.

It all sounds very vindictive and awkward, and maybe it was with certain audiences, but people were largely kind and fair (or at least, they were when they shouted out). A cast of good and good-natured improvisors helps. I asked one of the “fools” if they always got this kind of reaction from the crowd, and he said that our audience was much more vocal than those they’d had before the election. People were ready to play (and in any cases, drink). So thank you, Horsehead Theatre Co., for producing new work that’s so damn fun, and — especially at this particular time — vital.

*

Action items:

I worked for Congress for 6 years, and here’s what I learned about how they listen to constituents. 

A 70-Day Web Security Plan For Artists and Activists Under Siege

“We’re His Problem Now” Calling Sheet

Trump Syllabus 2.0

Why some protests succeed while others fail. 

The Case for Normalizing Trump (bad headline, good article)

The “Stronger Together” facebook group (I’ll add you if you want)

*

Righteous reads on the wild internet:

‘It’s unprecedented in our history’: Trump’s election inspired millions in nonprofit donations

After this election, I don’t owe anyone my silence or my unity. 

Blaming political correctness on Trump is like blaming the civil rights movement for Jim Crow. 

Trump excuses the white working class from the politics of personal responsibility. 

Please stop saying poor people did this. 

*

We took an amazing four-day road trip across Texas and New Mexico over Thanksgiving break. Being from the east coast, I’d never been exposed to that kind of extreme scenery. For example, a prairie so sparse you can see an entire train plowing through it. And it’s been awhile since I could see the Milky Way at night. Even driving wasn’t all that bad. Plus, it was incredibly therapeutic to have limited internet access for a few days.

road-trip-25-for-blog

Me, in awe of nature, not missing the internet at all.

Lead image/Paul Nicklen

September 2016: A perfect Houston evening

miracle

3 interviews, 1 play, 3 books, 100+ nuns, 1 [long] joyful art experience, with videos

*

That’s my lesson to all the young students: pay your parking tickets, or you could wind up in the slammer, and believe me, it’s no fun.

Brent Spiner, aka Data from Star Trek. I talked to him on speakerphone for 30 minutes while parked in a Syracuse rest stop – incredibly nice and funny guy, and probably my longest-ever conversation with a proper celebrity.

*

At first, I wanted to go into scripted filmmaking…. [but] there was a moment in time where I started to watch documentaries, and I became enamored with them — just in love with the truthful quality that you get from real human interactions which is impossible, really, to replicate in a work of fiction. To sift through hundreds of hours of footage to find a real, human interaction that you captured on film — there’s not one single fictional moment that can beat that, not one.

Kathryn Haydn, non-fiction television producer. Before we talked, I sat in on her presentation to a documentary filmmaking class, which was chock-full of practical advice and fascinating showbiz tidbits.

*

One student in my class wrote a beautiful poem that mentioned Taub Hall by name. That was a revelation to me, that art could be made about a dorm room, about the mundane things surrounding us. At the time it seemed to elevate experience, to transform it.

Melissa Ginsburg, author of “Sunset City.” I read the book (a gritty Houston noir) and we corresponded via email. What’s interesting is that she’s primarily a poet and professor at Ole Miss, but she felt compelled to cross forms to write “Sunset City.”

*

More than just a great headline: Hundreds of nuns trained in Kung Fu are biking the Himalayas to oppose human trafficking

“We wanted to do something to change this attitude that girls are less than boys and that it’s okay to sell them,” she said, adding that the bicycle trek shows “women have power and strength like men.”

– Jigme Konchok Lhamo, 22-year-old Nepalese Buddhist nun

*

“Buried Child” by Sam Shepard
Catastrophic Theatre at MATCH

I read this play on a Saturday afternoon at the Emerson College library while it snowed outside, which was about the coziest and most exhilarating play-reading I’ve experienced, and I couldn’t wait to see this production. Fie on my memory because the play was not like I remember it at all, mostly because I pictured it being performed at a fast pace, and the talented actors on a perfectly drab set took an eternity to pull out the scenes. Some parts of this play should be slow, some explosive. Of course, it was treated to a round of gushing reviews by Houston’s breathless theater critics, which I’m learning to ignore not because their opinions aren’t valuable, but because it’s dangerous to let myself get over-excited about theatrical performances.

*

“Crooked Heart” by Lissa Evans
This would make a fantastically whacked musical, with Rex Harrison-style talk-singing. Then, the completely dark scene in the bomb shelter, wherein shelterers start nervously, laughingly calling out the luxurious food they’d like to eat, would be beautifully jarring. It’s no surprise that Evans is a TV producer. I’ll eat my library card if it hasn’t already been optioned by the BBC.

“Animals” by Emma Jane Unsworth
I believed in these characters, and their un-obvious wit is irresistible. The ending is the part that felt a little obvious, and I can’t say I appreciated Tyler in the same way I appreciated Laura, but the ride is worth it. Do not believe lazy people who will compare this book to “Girls” or “Trainwreck” and dismiss it.

“The First Bad Man” by Miranda July
Truly unique, funny, relatable and uncomfortable. I like July’s films for the same reasons, I suppose. But the discomfort extended into novel form was not really what I wanted to read before bedtime. The ideal reading scenario for “The First Bad Man” would be to sneak into waiting rooms without an appointment and read it all there.

*

Bob Parks: artist talk

I wrote a feverish journal entry after this experience so I wouldn’t forget anything, and given the nature of Bob’s art and personality, I figured it would be best to include an almost-unadulterated version below. Note: I didn’t watch the documentary related to the two clips included here. The exhibition was visual art and artifacts.

It was what I’d like to call a perfect Houston evening, what you hope for when you go out, really. I found this artist conversation on Glass Tire with Bob Parks. The photo was of an eccentric looking guy, an older Weird Al type with a big British nose. I figured it was some art student’s photo of his grandpa, but it was actually a picture of Bob himself, wearing a Hawaiian shirt in his garden. The weird list of topics drew me in. 

A stub of a bulldog ran to meet us at the gallery. There was no one else inside except the curator, who followed the dog and introduced herself and the dog (his name was Boo), and another worker, a very young woman who was not introduced. An immediate awkwardness because we were the only people there. I was worried no one else would show up for the conversation. She gave us a flyer and we looked around for a few minutes. Weird mementos and photographs. Incredibly detailed drawings. Detailed logs of physiological health written in tiny, neat capital letters. A lot of “light constipation.” The dog sat on his bum looking at the ceiling, flailing his head back and forth in an especially groovy Stevie Wonder impersonation. He stopped eventually, and sat down near us.

The curator said she would go get Bob, and I expected him to arrive shortly. But then I heard a Skype noise, and realized she was flipping Skyping him in from England. She gave him a tour of the show by holding up her ipad, and we said hi when she got to us. No one else was coming in. 

She asked Bob how he came to be in a documentary (that’s how they found about him) while we were waiting in vain for more people to show up, and then he read an account of what he dictated to his mother about his “murderous rages.” Basically, he won’t ask questions of people he wouldn’t want asked of himself, so he’s dying for anyone to ask him a question so that he can ask it of them. He has quite a struggle with mental illness and is not on meds, we found out later, when the curator awkwardly asked him. “But you seem so well-balanced!” she said.

But, that was after he read the account of his murderous rages, as dictated to his mother, whom he dearly misses, and after he read a poem (“shall I do a poem then?”) about taking his parents on a tour of the national parks of England, when he was constipated and his dad was, shall we say, the opposite of constipated, and after he played two songs on his flutes, which made him very red-faced, and after he sang bits of two songs from the 50s (“before the beatles, a lovely sort of music”) and a song called “big nose” that he wrote and performed in the documentary. It was so weird and fabulous. We couldn’t leave, we were the only ones there and it would have been too conspicuous. The ipad kept slipping down from where it leaned against the back of the computer, and the curator kept propping it back up.


(Bob’s mum features heavily in this trailer.)

She asked him, first, about the dictation to his mom, but she misunderstood and thought that his mom had composed it (I kind of thought that too, he may have not explained very much) and expressed how nice it was, and how everyone wants to be listened to. He corrected her about the composition of the statement, and turned around the question on her: it sounds like you want to be listened to. Why do you feel like no one’s listening to you? You’re the curator, but not showing your own art? And she was flustered, first of all because oh no I’m not the curator, so first denying that talent, and then flustered because she doesn’t have any talent, “I’ve always been a facilitator for other people’s talent.” It felt very personal. Then the mental health thing. It got him on a roll about how everyone’s been psychotic since the first world war, and how no truly original and creative ideas had sprung forth since we started killing people on a global scale. Then I asked about media, and what he’s working in now. And he said something about Stanislavsky or Stravinsky and how an idea is transferred from the person to the canvas to another person, or something, but the message was really that medium is irrelevant, that the idea just has to be expressed. I’m probably butchering that. He also said, more practically, that he’s working class, and that means he often ends up just writing lately because it’s most available.

Then he went to bed, as it was midnight there, and we hung up on him. The curator offered to buy us a drink and chat for a bit, because she felt like she really needed to talk. We bought our own drinks, but did stay. We spent about half an hour talking about art in Houston and how Bob’s comment about her sharing her work struck her (“He was right, I don’t create my own work”). She was great, about our age, and we ended up having a lot of the same connections. We got her email address and promised to return.

*

Image/screenshot from Bob Parks advert