July – December 2017: A Piece of My Mind to Feast Upon

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“Winter is for House Mice” – Illustration by Amy Jean Porter via The Awl (click for her lovely short accompanying essay)

The Ghost of Christmas Present’s admonishment of Ebenezer Scrooge was eerily prescient this Christmas, as the GOP’s “tax heist” passed to thunderous applause from the rich. (This analysis breaks it down pretty clearly.) I wonder if lawmakers detected the slightest hint of irony as they gathered with their families for Christmas, with healthcare at the middle of it: these newfound gains will be literally forged on the backs of the poor—especially children like everyone’s favorite urchin, Tiny Tim.

SCROOGE: Tell me, spirit, will he live?

GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT: I see a vacant place at this table…. if these shadows remain unaltered by the future, the child will die.

S: No, say he will be spared.

G: If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, none other of my species will find him here. But if he is to die, then let him die, and decrease the surplus population.

S: You use my own words against me.

G: Yes. So perhaps in the future you will hold your tongue until you have discovered what the surplus population is, and where it is. It may well be that in the sight of heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.

Watch this clip from the 1984 George C. Scott/Edward Woodward version (the best version) for the two most righteous bits of this ghost’s visit, if you want Ignorance and Want to haunt your nightmares:

A lot to do this year.

~

Art reviews for the second half of 2017:

You Might Not Like Your Reflection in “Windows on Death Row” – A traveling exhibition featuring the art of death row inmates. I struggled with this one.

Character Studies in a Post-Cultural Revolution China: “Chinese Dreams” at MassArt – A bright, sharp-edged show featuring a variety of media that gelled effectively—both as exhibition and history lesson.

Eddie Martinez and Contemporary South African Prints at Wellesley’s Davis Museum – Eddie Martinez’s mandala paintings were the highlight here, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the small hallway of South African prints. I wouldn’t normally go outside the T for an art show, but this one proved to be worth the trip.

Math is Hard, and Beautiful (In Context): The Concinnatas Project at Krakow Witkin Gallery – I was determined to visit a gallery instead of a college, and found this fascinating little show at Krakow Witkin, a fantastic space with a friendly Mr. Witkin present to discuss the art. I mostly love this review because it features Paul waxing poetic about math at the end. Read it, if only for that.

The Half Hour Hold: Subjective Stare-downs with Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – Reading Jeanette Winterson’s “Art Objects” (essays, 1996) was one of the more pleasurable experiences of 2017. In my last full week of underemployment, I took her up on her challenge to stare at a painting for an hour, even though it turns out I can only manage 30 minutes at a time. But I did manage to fully fall in love with one painting at the MFA that I would have barely glanced at otherwise.

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Almost all of the plays I’ve seen in the second half of this year, with the exception of Houston-bucket-list-item “Tamarie Cooper’s Merry Evening of Mistakes and Regrets” (I guess past years have been better), have also been reviewed by my buddy Josh Garstka for Talkin’ Broadway, so I’ll link to his more comprehensive, eloquent takes.

“Men In Boats”
SpeakEasy Stage Company, September
Written by Jacklyn Backhaus

This play chronicles John Wesley Powell’s expedition of the Grand Canyon—but the playwright mandates that all actors must be women or non-gender-conforming individuals. While the characters face dire circumstances, I found it impossible not to feel jubilantly (dare I say) buoyant during their energetic navigation of the “river” and Jenna McFarland Lord’s cool set. (The creative team are all or mostly female, too, as far as I can tell from their names.)

My main takeaway, though, is that this play would be, with very minor cuts, PERFECT for a Girl Scout troop to perform. The action is straightforward, the props minimal, the language often appealingly anachronistic. Plus, it’s outdoorsy, and a fun way for girls to place themselves in a written history dominated by men. Bump-set-spike, scouts.

“Merrily We Roll Along” 
*Huntington Theatre Company
Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth

I basically wept throughout the entire show: I could never review it objectively, not after my constant consumption of the soundtrack throughout college and my current quarter-(or is it third)-life-crisis as someone who isn’t quite living her art dreams. This is also the age, it seems, when you start to realize how many friendships you’ve lost over the years. I left the theater insisting we have a homemade performance so I can play Mary.

The only slightly disappointing thing that stands out now, a few months later, was Charlie’s entirely-seated performance of “Franklin Shepard Inc.” I love this song, and the actor was great, but why was he directed to sit in what should have been a high-energy nervous breakdown? It should have been more of a foil to the more low-key songs it’s sandwiched between. Still, I was dancing in my seat.

*(Josh’s colleague actually wrote this one, I forgot because we went together)

“A Guide for the Homesick”
Huntington Theatre Company, October
Written by Ken Urban

Pound for pound the best play I’ve seen this year. Its two actors, McKinley Belcher III and Samuel H. Levine, do a tremendous amount of heavy lifting while managing not to bludgeon us into a stupor. Read Josh’s full review for more on the story and premise.

“Sense and Sensibility”
American Repertory Theatre, December
Written by Kate Hamill, from Jane Austen’s novel

Josh has some great lines in his review about how this production’s staging and light energy sheds the bulk of Austen’s “Masterpiece Theater” trappings, so refer to that, and take the fact that I was incredibly bored by halfway through the second act as an optional footnote. That was probably the point when the “dizzying” conceit of characters hurling each other about on the wheeled scenery stopped meaningfully reflecting their inner turmoil and confusion and became rote. I was reminded of the A.R.T.’s presentation of “The Tempest” a few years ago, which incorporated very cool effects and music while ultimately managing not to elevate the story in a meaningful way.

I am apparently the only one annoyed by thisif Kate Hamill can sell tickets to female-driven dramas by refreshing staid classics (she’s also done “Pride and Prejudice” and “Vanity Fair”), more power to her. And the actors were of course wonderful. I can never deny Nigel Gore, especially if he is wearing purple tights.

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Two articles on art, social media, and call-out culture:

While contemporary white authors are allowed to freely write complex, misanthropic characters into their work without incident, writers of color consistently confront culture cops who take issue with the portrayal of those characters in a diverse context. But what is a story without evolution of character anyway? Who is a character, really, without flaws? What’s the point of writing if not to tell some basic truth?

—From “Why Culture Cops Are Bad for Writers of Color” by Daniel Peña on Ploughshares Blog

I thought of Peña’s excellent blog post earlier this week when I read Artsy’s op-ed about the art world’s year of sociopolitical controversy“Don’t Equate Today’s Culture Wars to those of the 1990s” by Isaac Kaplaneven though they cover different media (visual vs. literary). Here’s Kaplan’s set up:

In 2017, a recurrent call to ‘take it down’ echoed throughout the art world. It was a year in which a handful of artworks provoked outrage for what critics, largely on the political left, deemed to be an exploitation of marginalized peoples’ suffering…. This call to take down work for being offensive (to put it very reductively) elicited quick comparisons to the ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1980s and ’90s, when conservative politicians tried to cut off government funding for exhibitions featuring artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano whose art dealing with queer and Christian subjects irked their religious sensibilities.

The “culture cops” are, though, very different between both of these articles. Peña talks about writers of color facing backlash for creating nuanced, perhaps unlikable/bad-influence/villainous characters, while the visual artists in question are either white or do not belong to the same ethnic group as the one they are “using” in their work. We can’t pretend that context and consequences don’t exist, especially when the artists involved ostensibly bank off marginalized people’s suffering.

Sam Durant realized that after meeting with Dakota elders, and ultimately agreed to remove “Scaffold,” and pledge never to recreate it. His interview with the L.A. Times is well worth the read, and illuminates the controversy in a less nebulous way.

Kaplan’s article doesn’t land on an answer about whether the art should or shouldn’t be removed—it focuses on the facile, unproductive comparison to conservative censorship 20 odd years ago, which is worth examining. So it is disheartening to see Facebook commenters who obviously didn’t read/process the article, parroting that all “censorship” is bad, waving away context and history.

Speaking of:

Social media is designed to keep us trapped in the present and devoid of history.

—Clive Thompson in a fascinating, unrelated analysis on This.org.

DEVOID OF HISTORY. How will we learn?

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More reads on relationships, feminism, class, and creativity:

Who actually wants to experience trauma? As Weissman writes, “one’s own place in the hierarchy of suffering has much to do with one’s professed ability to ‘feel the horror.’ A person’s intellect and moral fiber are measured by the degree they have come to ‘endure the psychic imprint of the trauma.’”Also known as: moral performativity. Non-witnesses want an authentic relationship with trauma; witnesses wish they never had one. 

“Hell is Real” – Leah Finnegan in one of the better Leah Letters of 2017


You say the problem with the phrase “happy wife, happy life” is that “it implies that marriage is not an equal partnership.” But it’s worth bearing in mind that the truth about marriage is that it often 
isn’t an equal partnership, despite our good intentions. The institution has a long, ugly history of placing women in “a secondary position.” And let’s pause to recognize that it is hard for both men and women to notice this.

“Mixed Feelings: Happy Wife, Happy Life” – Mandy Catron for The Rumpus


Male bumblers are an epidemic. These men are, should you not recognize the type, wide-eyed and perennially confused. What’s the difference, the male bumbler wonders, between a friendly conversation with a coworker and rubbing one’s penis in front of one? Between grooming a 14-year-old at her custody hearing and asking her out?

“The Myth of the Male Bumbler” – Lili Loofbourow for The Week


The lineup of celebrities who appeared in the promotional video for the Democratic Convention struck a weird chord not only with conservatives but also with anyone who was actually hungry for a “fight song” against the entrenchment of a political machine that has left them without access to jobs, health care or education. Why should anyone being buried in student loan debt automatically assume that the stars of 
Pitch Perfect are fighting for the same things they are?

“A Resistance Led By Celebrities Will Always Be Bullshit” – Anne Orchier for L.A. Weekly

If you went to boarding school and are bankrolled by your parents, own it, and be honest about your privilege: don’t think donning an Adidas tracksuit and tweeting about going to Greggs for lunch is anything other than offensive and embarrassing.

“Privileged Kids Need To Stop Fetishising Working Class Culture” – Dawn Foster for Huck Magazine

A few years back, I spent a summer in Houston acting like I had money. Then I fell in with some white kids who came from money. I guess you could call it a scene. All gallery openings and coffee bars and stage-dives. We’d flit from club to concert to loft to bed, occasionally stopping to take stock of the time. Or at least I did. Because that shit was brand new to me, very nearly alien, a reality so divorced from mine (black, Caribbean, Baptist, middle class), that I couldn’t help feeling threatened by it, and enticed by it, very nearly always wondering exactly how far it could go.

“New Money” – Bryan Washington for The Awl’s year-end holiday series “Fakes.” Read the whole series, it’s fantastic.

Goodbye to Joelle’s Houston

 

h-town 2We moved from Houston back to the Boston area in early August: before the hurricane, before the world series. Unexpected and serendipitous (everyone’s okay). After trying to write about leaving Houston in a few different ways, I figured that all I want to express, really, is a series of memories and forever-affiliations I will have as my own crummy personal souvenir. 

F*** You, Houston’s Awesome

Mosquito bites have finally faded
I no longer brace myself for cockroaches in empty beer cans
Excessive sweating is reserved for biking up hills
I’ve moved from Houston back to Somerville

Farewell, sweet lizards skittering on mangled sidewalks
Oranges and avocados on the landlord’s tree
Goodbye Gene Wu and Sheila Jackson Lee
Goodbye Wendy Davis and her good emails
And Jef Rouner, who I will still read, and breathless theater critics, who I won’t
Marvelous art scene sliding by on oil money

Goodbye rodeo and the wasted Astrodome
When I heard about the rodeo I joked about children riding goats
Then learned that they actually ride sheep (mutton busting)
Goodbye any opportunity for my hypothetical future children to be thrown from a sheep
Safely, to appreciate animal husbandry from a very specific point of view
The view from the back of a stumpy woolen escapee
Goodbye shiny new light rail that is better than the green line
And tense raids to check fares because there’s no turnstiles
Bus drivers who stop at McDonald’s to get a coffee while the passengers wait
And wave to people they recognize, in case they need a ride
Goodbye well-meaning men who slowed down, genuinely concerned that I was walking
Because no one walks in this neighborhood, something must be wrong

mutton busting

Mutton busting

Shoutout to dog families stopping traffic in East End and Third Ward
The mutt wearing a child’s rugby shirt that chased me on my bike that one time
Migration patterns spectacularly glooming city skies
Grackles with their wide-open beaks in baked parking lots
That scary taco raptor should be the Texas state bird
I’ll stop reaching for the feral cats next door
Pink nose, black nose, mom cat, Mr. Moustache, Mr. Bibs
Bandit cat, dreamy cat, friend cat, basic tabby, feral gray
Running like water in the streets that flood every time it rains
Flashing affection like the stoplights that always go out in a storm

grackles

Grackles on the train platform

Goodbye, aggressive pride in place
So much that the title of this poem is a clothing brand
Goodbye al-fresco dining in winter, crawdads in a kiddie pool in March
Hose flowing in washing out to flat streets, claws waving
Goodbye dead downtown and transcendent queso
Gayborhood where our queer Spanish landlords added “NO HUSTLERS NO PIMPS” to the lease
Farewell ice houses with your basketball hoops and sandy ground, dogs running free
We have actual ice on our houses here

Goodbye Shasta, superior live mascot, and your birthday meat cake
Shotgun houses with backyards, bracing yourselves for developers
You could fit at least two luxury units if you pave over every inch of soil
Goodbye to the normalcy of non-white bosses and non-white spaces
Goodbye phantom of bilingual education
Goodbye blue island in a red cesspool
Hello taxes, my favorite joke to “let the whales marry”

Hello winter I’m not tired of yet
Numb legs and wet leaves, burning torso barreling down the bike lane
I can’t wait for snow, what’s wrong with me? I want it so
I’ll snatch the heat from the downstairs apartment
Let tears of shock stream when the cold air hits
Goodbye streets on a grid, hello architecture

Goodbye meritocracy—big Texas talk
(It’s the best state, just ask a Texan)
An illusion, I know
But a sometimes convincing one. I see your businesses, young women,
Your getting-it-done, putting-it-up
Fuck you, Houston’s awesome
New security, new career
Launch pad to combat gatekeepers here
I’m not the only person who has said so
Back now to close friends and bus routes I still remember
God, it’s good to be back
If I can get through the feeling that I’m not who I was
When I last lived here
It will be very, very good.

Part 2: Houston haunts I will always treasure—not a best-of list, just retracing our most well-tread paths.

Restaurants
Barnaby’s on Fairview, especially for $2 wine/beer night on Tuesdays
BB’s Tex-Orleans Cafe
Torchy’s Tacos (Heights)
Ninja Ramen
Down House
Brasil
Ninfa’s on Navigation
Flakey’s Pizza

Food trucks
Waffle Bus
Moon Rooster Tacos

Bars/Ice Houses
Moon Tower
Lei Low
Poison Girl

Cafés for working
Mercantile Montrose
Ahh! Coffee
EQ Heights

Cafés for eating and getting out
Blacksmith

Café that is more of a vehicle for cat snuggles than coffee
El Gato Cat Café

Cookies and hugs
Crumbville

Arts Organizations
WriteSpace
Houston Scriptwriters
DiverseWorks Gallery

Best haircut
Ciao Salon

Best building sign
Birth & Death Records near the Blood Donation Center

brith & death records

It’s hard to tell, but these letters are sunken into the concrete. Always struck me as weirdly cool and creepy.

Plays (scroll down here)
“The Nether” – Alley Theatre
“The Hunchback Variations” – Catastrophic Theatre
“Intimate Apparel” – University of Houston
“The Judgment of Fools” – Horsehead Theatre Company

Art exhibits
School for the Movement of the Technicolor People
The Propeller Group
The City

Most treasured piece of art acquired
Refresh zine

Best feral cat
Pinknose

pink nose black nose

Pink Nose and Black Nose

Second only because he disappeared/got adopted: Friend cat

friend cat

Friend cat allowed pats, so he *must* have found a home.

Cat I respect most and am most worried about
Dreamy cat, who is looking worse for wear every time he wanders back

dreamy cat

Dreamy cat as I remember him

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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Other Favorite Art/Literature Frissons Du Coeur in 2016:

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

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

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

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

Bob Parks at the Brandon
See September entry

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

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

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

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

***

23 baby pandas:

Happy New Year to us all.

Image/Pinterest