April 2018: Gym for the Soul

polka horse

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

 

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

*

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

DragonLadyposter

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

“Real Autism” by Sarah Kurchak for Hazlitt

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

 

 

March 2018: Spectacle, or Spectacular

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.

 

January 2018: Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places?

FakeWeatherHR

“Fake Weather” – photograph by Julie Blackmon, via Robert Klein Gallery. January was rough, weather-wise (six days in a row under 20 degrees), but I still don’t miss Houston heat.

 

A few months ago, I mentioned to a friend that it’d be nice to start a poetry memorization/recitation group. I want to go to the next level with poems I love, to carry them with me all the time. A different way to approach a poem, to really pay attention. She held me accountable for the idea, and three of us met in January with our first poems. I chose “Questions of Travel” by Elizabeth Bishop (the title of this post is a line from it), which I frequently cite as one of my favorites.

What did I learn/realize anew? Mainly  that “Questions of Travel” is LONG, lacking a regular rhyme scheme, with Bishop’s trademark somewhat-impenetrable phrasing. I found myself dying to reword a few of her lines, and might have accidentally done so in my recitation. I realized how easily I skipped over the bits I’m ambivalent to (“Three towers, five silver crosses”) to get to the parts I like (“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”). I think most readers are loathe to admit how much we end up skimming even our favorites, both poetry and prose.

Did spending more time with the poem make me fall in deeper in love, as with the staring-at-a-painting-for-30-minutes exercise? I think so, ultimately. I found much more to enjoy in the fourth stanza than usual (“Never to have studied history / in the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages”), perhaps because before I would be racing through it to get to the lovely ending (“Should we have stayed at home / wherever that may be?”). I still count it as one of my favorites: questions of travel, and whether a person changes depending on their surroundings, are all the more relevant in our hyper-mobile society.

That said, I’m going short and rhyme-y in February. /pulls out “Selected Stevie Smith”

*

I recently listened to the Arthur Miller episode of “You Must Remember This”—part of the podcast’s Hollywood Blacklist series that aired in 2016. I love “You Must Remember This” and its host/producer, Karina Longworth—essentially everyone who has listened to an episode does. She turns a not-insignificant amount of research on “Hollywood’s first century” into extremely palatable, lunch-hour-length episodes. Her approach is both loving and journalistic, but she doesn’t hide her progressive leanings when appropriate, and while she gives her subjects their due diligence in research and fact-checking, she doesn’t hesitate to name their bad behavior. In short, it’s a loving podcast that does not necessarily invite nostalgia-induced hero worship.

This episode covers most of Miller’s career highlights from before the Blacklist. I learned that he had vowed to give up playwriting altogether if “All My Sons” wasn’t a hit (I think it might be my favorite of his). When that play was a critical and financial success, he took a job in a box factory so he wouldn’t lose touch with the working man altogether (he lasted one week). Then, he built himself a writing shed, determined that he wouldn’t be allowed to write more hits until he had earned another manual labor merit badge.

But since this particular series focuses on the Hollywood Blacklist and HUAC hearings, there isn’t as much real estate for Miller’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe as there is for his soured friendship with Elia Kazan, besides the fact that Miller received much more attention from HUAC because of his ties to the most famous woman in the world. Longworth does note that there is much more to that story, and Miller’s mistreatment of his second wife in both his written works and real life, and I guess I got a lot of that story from this story the next day:

A #metoo banner on a red background, with the T in "too" as a wooden cross, and a depiction of Marilyn Monroe is tied to it, with flames beginning to consume her.

Now there’s a lead image. Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brockway for the Daily Beast

Some coincidence—it’s only because I’m behind on the podcast that it coincided with #MeToo movement, and this article by Maria Dahvana Headley. The headline does most of the work: “Him Too? How Arthur Miller Smeared Marilyn Monroe and Invented the Modern Male Witch Hunt.”

Headley’s article is a feminist deconstruction that has a different thesis than Longworth’s Blacklist episode, so they’re not exactly comparable and neither deserves blame for the way they covered Miller. But one aspect that was not present in the podcast episode was the parallels between Monroe and the character of Abigail in “The Crucible”: the 17-year-old who has an affair with John Proctor, then vengefully accuses his wife of witchcraft. This mirrors Miller’s own torn feelings, as he fell hard for Monroe to the detriment of his own marriage. (He stayed married for years after he fell in love with her, as she conducted her own affair with his then-friend Kazan.) Headley’s analysis is a prescient one. I haven’t read “The Crucible” in years or ever seen it onstage, but Abigail’s villain-hood, as a hysterical spurned temptress who would “ruin” the life of a “good man” in a series of calculated, vindictive maneuvers, is incredibly apt in light of the #MeToo movement, and men’s bandying about of the term “witch hunt.”

In the past 20 years, feminist readings of “The Crucible” (with or without reference to Miller’s real-life parallels) reveal Abigail as a victim (raped, dismissed from her position) who is mistreated by the writer in his characterization, as is Elizabeth, the “frigid” wife. Abigail also makes me think of other female villains throughout history, both fictional and real, including my favorite temperance preacher/hatchetator, Carry A. Nation. The ways that disenfranchised women find and wield power—so often under the guise of “virtue,” the only acceptable label for them—is often not palatable, to put it lightly.

That’s about as far as I’m willing to analyze it without re-reading “The Crucible.” Instead, I will re-read Lindy West’s “witch” take from last October: “Yes, This is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch, and I’m Hunting You.” 

*

“Gold Fame Citrus” by Claire Vaye Watkins
2015, Riverhead Books
Novel – 352 pages

For a long time, I was fixated on a Californian landscape that I’d never actually experienced. That fixation hasn’t changed since my first visit last year, maybe because it’s culturally mythologized so effectively. The difference, now that I’ve visited, is that I have an unearned attachment to the Romantic wasteland of gold, fame, and citrus. Those are the three reasons people go to California, according the characters in this book.

So that unearned attachment is probably why I liked the story so much, though the author’s style was aggressively Literary at times. The apocalyptic, fantastical, and painfully simple break-down of society in the face of environmental catastrophe pulled me right in. I was as fooled as the main character, Luz. Definitely recommend—but you will feel sandy for days afterward.

*

“Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor
2010, DAW
Novel – 432 pages

Why yes, I did find this on the same “climate change apocalypse” reading list as “Gold Fame Citrus.” Okorafor also writes young adult fiction, and I think the only reason this book isn’t classified as YA is because of the amount of weaponized rape that occurs in this futuristic depiction of war-torn Sudan. The thing is, you don’t realize it’s the future until characters start stumbling upon ancient desktop computers—tribal warfare and theocracy is definitely something most readers will associate with the past, not the future. The presence of magic and countless twists and turns kept my eyes on the page, though it’s easy to become disoriented on this sprawling journey. I love the main character, Onyesonwu (which means “who fears death”), and her stubborn strength. Not to mention the fact that she’s a powerful-but-doomed sorceress who can transform into animals and bring people back from the dead.

I kept thinking how this book might be adapted as a film or miniseries, and which of the harsher elements they might have to cut, both for length and content. Then I saw that HBO has optioned the story, and George R.R. Martin will produce—so [Eeyore voice] I guess they’re keeping the graphic rape scenes. It is central to the plot and the main character’s identity, though. I’m sure I’ll be tuning in to see how they interpret the journey.

*

“Men Explain Things To Me” by Rebecca Solnit
2014, Haymarket Books
Essays – 130 pages

I think that most of Rebecca Solnit’s now-huge fanbase came to know her through this book, or at least the titular essay. I had never actually read it before (although I can’t really claim to have liked her “before she was cool”—I saw her speak at a whim at UH in 2014). For my money, the best essay in this book is the one about Virginia Woolf, which also appeared in the New Yorker: “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable.” Great notes on criticism, the “tyranny of the quantifiable,” and the value of uncertainty.

*

Choice articles/essays:

“Forgiving the Unforgivable: Geronimo’s Descendants Seek to Salve Generational Trauma” —Anna Badkhen for LitHub

“Swing Low, White Women” – Brigitte Fielder for Avidly, on the pink pussy hat placed upon a statue of Harriet Tubman during this year’s Women’s March

“The Women the Abortion War Leaves out” — Michelle Oberman for The New York Times

“Caseworkers, Stand Up Against Racism in Child Welfare Or Be Part of the Problem” – Alan Dettlaff, dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (probably my favorite UH college), for YouthToday

“Letter from a Target-Rich Environment” – Barrett Swanson for Guernica

“Watching Delores O’Riordan Dance on Yeats’ Grave” – Laura Passin for Electric Literature, in what is both a tribute to the recently departed Cranberries singer and Ireland’s rich tradition of history-reclaiming woman poets

“What a Year of Grief Taught Me about Monuments and Memorials” — Ric Kasini Kadour for Hyperallergic

“An Evening of Immersive Theater with the Dead and Dying” — Adam Dalva on an immersive theater version of James Joyce’s “The Dead” for The Millions

Letter to a Young Poet (the whole of your body is a vibing wire) — Patricia Smith for The Scores, as part of their “Letter to a Young Poet” series

“A Eulogy for the Headphone Jack” — Charley Hoey on Medium

“Materials, Man” —Austin Kleon’s blog, on how an artist has to love her materials

“Is There Such a Thing as a Good Book Review?” — Elisa Gabbert in her writing advice column, The Blunt Instrument, for Electric Literature

“Improving Ourselves to Death” — Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker

*

I did go to muddy Cambridge Common with “several thousand” others for a Women’s Rally on January 20. Not quite as magical as last year’s Austin/Wendy Davis/Sailor Moon excursion, but heartening nonetheless. My best photo is of a sousaphone wearing a pussy hat:

IMG_20180120_145844_344

Dreary day, but the band brightened it up.

 

 

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

ajp_bananas-mice_x1500-768x562

“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.

~

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.

~

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?

~

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

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

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.

 

 

 

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