Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Cinematic Tribute to Carver

Weaving a classic Raymond Carver story, Hollywood blockbuster action films, Broadway business, media politics, ever-evolving social marketing platforms, and an array of character psychoses from schizophrenic paranoia to delusional narcissism into a compelling tale is a tall order; Alejandro González Iñárritu delivers, and he delivers a beautifully and meticulously wrought tapestry. Birdman was much anticipated and upon release, was an immediate success among the masses and much lauded by film and cultural critics. The humming buzz is much deserved: well acted, well directed, well written. For me, much of the praise and the intrigue of the film is owed to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his extended frenetic sweeping takes and camera movements, which lend the film its pulsing, sweating energy, its hallucinogenic effect, its pervasive improvisational sway. The choreography of the camera coalesces with the rapid, scat-style drumming score that hums, rapping and beating in a fever.

With moments of whim and fantasy, coupled with the visual and aural kinetics of the camera and drum, the film at first seems incongruous to the minimal style and subtle tone of the central piece of fiction, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," which washed-up and possibly deranged protagonist Riggan Thomson adapts for his precarious Broadway theater debut. After seeing the film a few weeks back, it took some marination time for the realization that the circuitous roving of the camera in Birdman, circling and bobbing through the long corridors and winding staircases of the back of the Broadway theater, mirrors the passing of the gin bottles between the two couples in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," around and around the table. The selection of story was precise and purposeful, from a character and symbolism perspective: both address the complexities of inadequacy, expectation combating with reality, the throes of addiction. While the thematic tie was immediately satisfying and realized, for me, the complementing geometry of each work, sweeping circles, from one character to the next, seems more than merely fortuitous.

As a vehement lover of books and the written word, I generally approach film adaptations of favorite novels and stories with ambivalence. The power, the beauty, the truth of language is not always possible to capture, and while a different medium can provoke other thoughts or emotions, I am more apt to disappointment if the effect is lackluster compared to the original. Here, I greatly admire the construct, the assimilation of such a powerful literary work, reappropriated and working within the confines of a separate but equally compelling narrative. Again, well tied into the film's commentary on the marketing power of viral social media content and our self-reappropriation in digital realms. A delightfully intricate film experience and certainly money well spent to view in the theaters.   

(image taken from Business Insider)  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dreams Pass Into the Reality of Action

Since I was a very small girl, I have been haunted with recurring dreams, dreams so vivid and so repetitive, it is as though when my eyes close, my neurons slowly drift to sleep, I am forced to watch the same film, over and over. Rather than a passive watching though, I am moving, speaking, acting, and yet seem unable to act of my own volition, stuck in an unconscious track, following the script word for word.

In recent years, one of these dreams, transpiring every few months, is elegantly simple in its stress-inducing dilemma: I am still a student, it is exam week, and I have discovered that I have failed to attend two of my courses the entire semester. For some reason, it is nearly always a European history course of some sort and a class on differential equations. Panicked, I wrack my brain, I fret, how is it possible that I could neglect such a grave obligation for weeks, for months. What was I doing instead of attending class? Was something else more pressing? In this dream world, have I been shirking responsibility for leisure, for pleasure? In the dream, it is never obvious if, up until that realization of missing the classes, I was blissfully ignorant and happy. There is only a numbing stress, which persists, bleeds into my reality when I wake. My breath seems to take a moment to recover, my heart thumps in uneven patterns, gesticulating wildly. Once the dream-state blurs, it always seems silly, to have such a pronounced homeostatic response to something which, comparatively, is insignificant. Even if these events were true, I missed classes, failed miserably, this is hardly a tragedy. A challenge, a setback, but a course of events that could, with the proper amount of determination and spunk and intelligence, be easily overcome. Later to be attributed to something that builds character.

Metaphorically, there could be something deeper here, a profound fear that there is something going on, something looming, that I am ignoring until it is too late. Temporality here is cruel, my enemy. How will I react when the monster bares its teeth, gnashes its jaws in my face, after leaping out from what previously were a set of plush bushes. Will I have the strength and the courage to take action, or will I be a coward, allow myself to be eaten.

Last night, I lived this dream. This morning, as with most mornings, I stayed cowered under my thick, warm blankets, trying to hide from the cold air and the rising sun, light creeping stealthily between the cracks of my drapes hung at the tall windows.

(image taken from Fine Art America)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career

My fiction workshop is drawing to a close, this autumn moving past me, my world, with a celerity that was shocking, leaving me cold and alone in its wake. Though I have not quite completed my work and entered an appropriate phase to reflect, overall, my course has been a success. It was a fresh perspective, it was a plunging into something familiar yet still unknown, like diving into a new pool of water, a lake; I know how to swim, the maneuvers, the strokes, I know the feel of water rushing past my body as I break the surface with my hands, head, torso, but each body of water has its own mysteries beneath. Having studied fiction as an undergraduate, the workshop format was familiar, but the dynamics of the group, the instructor, as changing as an organic creature.

Ever the pessimist, ever my own critic, while I am pleased that this experience has been inspiring, I have been and continue to be a bit disappointed in my own performance. My own lack of discipline. While the spark, the desire, to write has been ignited, actual pen to paper, capturing the words that drift feverishly through my cortical corners, snippets, circumstances, has been substantially little. Still, despite this class, despite a welcome and encouraging community, I do not write, at least, not as much as one should. Should. Ever an amorphous concept, fluid, changeling, subject to my harsh biases. Afraid, or more accurately, lazy, I let the words, the stories, flounder listlessly in my mind. Working full time at a demanding career, while trying to pursue something more, something I feel I must, at least for my sanity, is beyond challenging, and I know, rationally, that I should be kinder to myself, be more forgiving.

While still a student, in middle school, in high school, in university, I received much praise, encouragement, pushing: this is what you should do. This is what you must do. When I was younger, this thrilled me, and convinced me. As I grew older, approached that age of metaphoric umbilical cord snapping, this burdened me. It seemed impossible, or perhaps to be lies, told for convenience, to placate. Doubting, I began to instead believe that, like for so many, there existed a palpable artistic sentiment, without the intuition, the genius, the dedication.

Refused to accept a notion of calling, refused to place a bet on talent. Instead, I stumbled forward, into accidental industry, found comfort, some challenges of a different ilk, found struggle.

Earlier in the semester, I read the first portion of a story in draft to my class; mulling over it these few weeks, I have mapped out the second portion, a sort of one-two punch of a structure. Now, to just write it.

(image taken from Vintage Everyday)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Homecoming Wedding

Drawn to my home town by a wedding, a friend from high school. Tender years of adolescence, of potential, that seemed so insufferable and tough at the time. From similar familial environments, more or less, we all studied diligently, discovered a love for vintage jewels, stole bouts of liquor from our parents to create some tame trouble for ourselves. Scattered to various geographies for university, unique coordinates, we kept in loose touch, more or less, reverting to old ways, old patterns, during holidays, summer vacation. Friendships not quite founded on tedium, but a sort of easy comfort, and familiarity.

I took the train south. I no longer own a car, able to commute, transmute, glide with ease from neighborhood to neighborhood, rattling with strangers underground. My parents retrieve me from the station, drive me to their new home, their retirement home, a handful of physical miles from, and great atmospheric distances from, the coddled suburban development of my youth. 

The night of the wedding, my mother drives us to the venue, a stiff country club. Polished, in sleek dresses, sparkling earrings, fancy. I forget that it has been more than a decade. Whisked back.

We would get ready for dances collectively, a gaggle of giggling girls, girls giggling from glugging clandestine vodka, drunk from cheap perfume. Piling into the back seat, squirming unnaturally to look natural. We wear brightly colored dresses, taunting polyester plumage.

 I forget that it has been more than a decade. What has happened in this time? Circling in some other city, occasionally called back, returning obediently like a falcon.

(image taken from Humble Pie Vintage)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Deep End

For our first class assignment, my first academic assignment in over five years, we are asked to bring three pages, three pages of exemplary work we admire, three pages of work that we are proud of, or three pages of work that we are struggling with. I chose the last, a struggle. The rest of the class clutches books by Dostoevsky, by Bernhard, by Walcott, by Sebald. Foolishly, wrongly, I assumed we would hand in our pages, silently. After the class shuffles in, young and old and somewhere between young and old, tired and carrying the weight of our days, some stooped slightly, others acutely, the instructor announces that we will take turns reading aloud the passage we selected. Trial by action. A toss into the pool.

When was it that I had last read aloud, before a group? Definitively, I recall a time, a Sunday morning, possibly late spring, in church, reading a passage from the New Testament before my congregation, my voice clear and steadfast, despite, even then, a wavering, a skepticism, questioning the rhetorical argument, questioning the philosophical and scientific validity of organized religion, the cultural impact of such dogma. Afterwards, the people gathered in a large hall, the foyer to the house of worship, swallowing cheap sugar cookies and sticky lemonade like communion, swapping gossip about the achievements and failures of their children, the illnesses of their parents. They grasped my hand, expressed their gratitude, their compliments. I enjoyed standing before them, reading to an audience, even though it was not my words. My father smiled.

Now, I must read three pages and pretend not to struggle through it. The pits of my arms grow warm, palpitate with a new dew, as though my heart has split, a large cell at the end of mitosis, and migrated to live, one chunk under each shoulder, in the cave crevice. I try to read slowly, deliberately, though, I cannot gauge from the stares of the others whether my pace is appropriate, my words compelling. Sentences seem too long. This is always my tendency, in spoken and written word, to effuse, to string clause upon clause like copious beads, to qualify, to intersect a sentence with a related tangent, an aside. I try to read deliberately. I try not to slice my tongue along the long length of clauses, of sentences, of pages of woven words. Some of the imagery, inked in my memory like a tattoo, still seem strong, to me, and I desperately pray that the class agrees, finds some truth or some beauty or some something in them. 

When I finish, the instructor poses a question: why am I struggling with this piece? What am I struggling with? The question seems obvious, though, I do not answer this way: I struggle with all of my writing, always. When I write in my head, mentally, and when I take the dare to commit those words to paper, the struggle, the fear, tantalizing, persists. 

(image taken from This Recording)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Shifting Contents

It is an evening in early November, somewhere between chilled and frigid, and we are house sitting for a pilates instructor. Situated, snuggled, along a slope towards a gorge, geographically characteristic of this area in western New York, the house features an impressive yet unassuming tiered porch, complete with steaming hot tub. We sit together in the tub, sipping cheap red wine, swathed in steam and our sweat. Above our heads, the black quilt of night sky is dazzling with patchwork clusters of stars, constellations of our own imagining we draw with fingertips. We talk and laugh, slowly, lethargic from the effort of staying awake in the warm water, lethargic from our dinner of wicked and delicious frozen pizza. A girls only sleepover, a welcome respite from the typical weekend evening of too much plastic vodka, too much beer, dancing until the moon sets, cumbersome sexual stumblings with boys we do not like and will, more than likely, forget about, or have a hard time remembering names, fuzzy details, a year from now. Fights with friends, angst toward stubborn parents, stress over difficult classes, fear of never being noticed let alone loved by him, all slowly dissipates, becomes as ephemeral and intangible as the lazy paths of steam, winding and ambling, disappearing into the dark. The future as unreal and benign as the steam, rising from lapping water in the tub. We are comfortable, in this beautiful house, in beautiful woods, wrapped in dark warmth.

Although exploring the demise and the birth of two separate romantic relationships with two very different men, using a fascinating and fluid travel log structure, detailing accounts in various cities, crowded and remote, most compelling in Pam Houston's novel Contents May Have Shifted is the span and depth of the fierce bonds between the narrator and her female friends. The women spend weekends together, reunited, at hot springs spas in the west, write thoughtful letters to one another between visits, travel to the far reaches of southeast Asia to explore spiritual havens, untouched, together imbued with potent feelings of heritage and calm. They embark on adventures, gunning down water rapids in rushing rivers, coaxing teams of dogs to guide and glide them along snow-covered paths, trusting in the physicality, in the confidence, of the other. The narrator invites these women into her home, a secluded ranch in a small town, time passing, but not, between cups of tea, glasses of wine. Amidst constant change, shifting jobs and partners and cities, the women are true to one another; their love is admirable, and is enviable.

At the finish of this novel, I was inspired. Inspired to explore the unknown, inspired to confront my fear, fear of unknown in friendships, fear of unknown in strangers, fear of unknown in alien lands, majestic and mundane alike. Inspired to travel, beyond the comfort realm. Inspired to work harder to continue to forge deep, meaningful bonds with my female friends, to seek comfort in their strength, to be proud, internally but also vocally, of the beautiful and wonderful things they do. Inspired to write more, and specifically inspired by her fluid narrative structure, short vignettes passing through temporal and physical space, single molecules beautiful on their own, but organic and fascinating when woven together collectively.

(image taken from The Women's Eye)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


This evening I begin a writing workshop course, part of the adult continuing education offerings from The New School. It is listed as an advanced course, for more experienced writers, with the intent of polishing a particular piece. As time passes, noodling around at my desk with various bits and pieces of nothing, I grow increasingly nervous. I was extraordinarily nervous when I signed up for the course earlier in the summer, but the sharp anxiety dissipated, ebbed back like a slow tide to some inner, quiet, tranquil recess of myself. Now that performance is imminent, it roars. I have not been in a classroom since I graduated from university; it was only five years ago, but those five years seem so much longer, so much more, tedious and titillating, compressed in those times, compared to the four years spent on my campus. While the years since academic pursuits have been busy, a seeming constant hustled trajectory, always moving, moving, they have not been filled with much writing. Some poems, the preludes to longer works of fiction, or not, various journal entries, various online essays and jaunts, many superficial blog posts. Jotted down notes in blank sketch books, scrawled bits of prose on the backs of shopping receipts. Rare do I return to these bits, to edit and rework and shape, sculpt into something more. Nothing substantial. Nothing with real meat, nothing that involved strenuous coaxing and cajoling and metaphoric, or literal, tears bringing that meat to life, to something beautiful with, in a way, its own life beyond the realm of my mind.

My writing has been haphazard, a dalliance, rather than something to which I am dedicated, for which I am proud.

I, like many, have always had a fear of rejection. Now, I am worried, I am starting to realize that I have developed a fear for effort. For the unknown risk.

The nerves are simultaneously hideous and lovely, evil and good; I can hardly wait.

(image taken from From Your Desks)

Monday, August 25, 2014


In the corner of the living room, a Christmas tree rots. It is not dried, crisp, brown, wizened, naked from shedding rains of sharp delicate needles, as would be expected. It is more akin to rotting flesh, a trophy carcass mounted, natural, leaving the innards as is, allowed to decompose and perfume the air. The glass ornament bulbs shine, glare, bouncing bands of light back and forth between them amidst the sea of dead branches. Underneath a scattering of wrapped presents, metallic bows and sheen paper glistening, pristine and ghastly against the backdrop of the rotting tree. 

It is April, we tell our father, and he seems confused by this, or maybe, more accurately, unconcerned. We have come to help clean, to expunge years of clutter and memories, and we have found the tree, unmoved since the death of our mother. She must have died, in this world, sometime around Christmas, or perhaps even before, the tree displayed as ritual routine, but the final step of discard too final, too difficult. Three adult children, musing on our mother, in this world, a victim who has succumbed to some unknown and looming cancer, that omnipotent sense of unstoppable dread and death. Maligned growth, badness propagated, until the good, the healthy, is just engulfed and pushed out. A sort of suffocation.

Someone tries to explain to our father the importance of moving forward. She is gone to us all. We receive no response, he sits silent in a chair, watching as we dismantle the tree-meat into pieces, to toss. Glass globes shatter, the shards piercing every corner of the room, pricking the tips of our fingers as we attempt to clean, coaxing blood and more to come to the surface.

I woke, disoriented, sweating, more tired, with the cheerful morning light cascading into my bedroom, than I had been last night, in the dark night. It takes a moment or two or more to distinguish in my mind the areas of separation and the areas of verisimilitude between that world and this one. Work drags. That evening, I call her, wanting to, irrationally, confirm she is still alive.

We talk about visiting friends; they arrived on a Wednesday, left on a Tuesday morning, flew into and out of this airport. Gate number, terminal. At the end of month, I will travel to Texas, visit my brother in his new city. We discuss dates, time of flights. I forget my words as I speak them.

I want to share with her my dream, my fears. I keep my mouth shut.

(image taken from Bert Stern)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Man on Wire

Spit through the mouth onto the concrete, from the belly of the meandering subway underground, I walk to work each day, head down, idly concentrating on the steps, avoiding the traps of laid by open grates, sidewalk cracks. Eyes blurred, oblivious to the squirming mass of bodies passing, others, walking to work, exploring, running, shouting, silent, heads down in camaraderie. Head down, dodging between mothers carting children, between European and Asian tourists posing for photographs in front of Madison Square Garden, posing beside crumpled fast food wrappers and homeless men with bloated feet, shaking their cans, shaking their heads. A familiar trajectory, a few blocks along the avenue, to a dusty building tucked just inside of the corner.

Did you see that restored Rolls Royce, slow rolling along?

Did you see that artist, releasing small balloons into the sky, bits of poems attached to scatter for the world?

Did you see that chimpanzee, in a tuxedo, a monkey suit?

My eyes seem shut, like I want to pass through the world untouched, forgotten, blind.

A few years ago, I watched Man on Wire, the absolutely stunning documentary revealing the story behind Philippe Petit and his awesome, magnificent feat, tight-rope walking between the Twin Towers. Today is the fortieth anniversary of his feat, that testament to the power of the artistic spirit, the power for the romantic to prevail over the pragmatic and the bureaucratic, the feat that reminded the world that sometimes, life is simple, pure, a walk across a bit of taut rope, a commune with the air. As the film illustrates, this beautiful story is also a testament to the power of trust and confidence; Petit would never have been able to accomplish his acrobatic poem without the love, trust, support, encouragement of others, friends, family, lover, strangers. People who helped him arduously train. People who simply looked the other way, let the experiment play out. Some of these people, after the success of the mission, Petit never speaks to again, his relationships clouded with his artistic narcissism. Like so many of the glorious feats of man, this one, watching it replayed, with a cushion of time and subjective documentary lens between us, incited that odd simultaneous conflict of sadness and of inspiration. Anything is possible. Look at the perseverance, amid a backdrop of uncertainty. From our perspective, on the ground, how tiny he was. And from his perspective, we, on the ground, how small, how insignificant.

The Twin Towers have been destroyed for over a decade now, but that fact is eclipsed by so many other reasons this type of stunt seems impossible to replicate. It seems impossible to imagine that morning commute in the city, sipping on scalding coffee, looking up to see some miniscule figure, appearing to walk amongst the clouds, above the towers of the buildings, to flit and dance in the sky. An individual with the fortitude, the vision, the passion, the selfishness, is rare, rare among the grains of sands of people across countries and generations. Petit was, truly, unique.  

(image taken from ABC Australia)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Walking the Right of Way

A number of weeks ago, our table flooded with red wine and remnants of local meat, some friends of mine and I discussed the vehement trend in contemporary independent films: reaching so hard for subdued, quiet moments with emotionally violent characters where nothing is at stake. These films reek in their efforts for subtlety, for sympathy, for connectivity, for that actually quite challenging balance of celebration of the banal and the unique but universal feeling of daily human interaction. We laughed and joked, disinterested with the romantic entanglements and affairs of the bored housewife, the pathetic attempts of the dead-beat father to reach his angst-fueled son. Many of these films are attempting to penetrate a realm where some of my favorite and most beloved literature holds reign: the short fiction of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Lydia Davis. Precise and concise, with purposeful and profound small moments, magnificent in the way they touch you, course through like a sharp synapse. 

Weary from an exhausting day of cubicle-languishing and computer screen glare, the other evening I relaxed with The Station Agent, about a decade old but recently lauded by friends and family. A beautiful story softly unfurls, three unlikely strangers, each with diverse burdens to bear and accompanying defense mechanisms to cope, forge a compelling and believable friendship. The protagonist, Fin, a dwarf, dons a misanthropic cloak, a hardened shell he thinks will protect him from what he perceives to be the innate cruelty. He seeks solitude in an abandoned train station property inherited from his sole friend, who dies within the first minutes of the film, proclaims himself a pariah, and greets those around him with a brusque demeanor  and incredulity. His becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: he expects meanness, acts mean to others, and so many people often reciprocate. That being said, he is not completely foolish and unjustified in his expectations; scenes of mild humiliation, from the obvious long stare of a passerby to the snap of a photograph by a store proprietor, to scenes of greater tumbles with flagrant ignorant threats and stupidity serve as a foundation and a reminder to the viewer that despite the displays of kindness and of generosity by some, Fin's life is one fettered with prejudice and adversity. These moments are not bombastic or overly wrought, and as they are interspersed with times when Fin meets others with insensitivities, they are realistic in their portrayal. Olivia, the second in the trio of misfits, is a middle-aged woman, separated from her typically bland wealthy husband, and is equally cloaked in an intense grief over the sudden death of her young son. Similar to Fin, Olivia seeks solitude in her empty and impressive vacation home in this remote rural town, paints large canvases, avoids telephone calls and visitors. Joe, the gregarious son of local coffee and food truck vendor, tempers the group and the tone of the film, but is not without his own struggles; his father, local celebrity who we never meet, is ill and he has abandoned his busy urban life to care for him. In a way, the lack of background for Joe, the sense that coming to this small town was obligation, rather than choice as it was for Fin and Olivia, earn his character a similar sense of pathos; he, too, exhibits emotional fortitude in the face of mountainous problems, but in choosing to do so with a grin and a healthy dose of confidence, he helps save the film from the realm of doldrums, steers the film away from trite. 

Despite their occasionally successful efforts to alienate the others, Fin, Olivia, and Joe connect, surprise themselves even at how easy it can be, despite ostensible differences, to laugh with one another, to get drunk with one another, to speak about life, or not speak about life, until late in the night with one another. Fin's passion for and knowledge of trains, an interest that has escalated to obsession and a mechanism for alienation, infects both Olivia and Joe. As they accompany Fin on his excursions walking the right of way, the train fascination framework fades, is a device that becomes less important, merely a vehicle for their growing bonds. An interest in bird watching, or old model cars, or baking, or ceramics, all also activities fit for those with a proclivity for solace, could have been substituted. For each, in their own way grappling with grief, wanting to sink into a familiar sludge of loneliness and self-pity, life unveils wonder again, adventure again, as they trudge along the train tracks, passing bucolic views, abandoned stations. Thankfully, this is all accomplished with a delicate directorial hand, astute writing, and beautiful acting. I truly believed in this troupe, in their genuine affections and respect for one another.

In some ways, Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale play familiar variations of other characters they have played before or since, familiar tropes: the sage misanthrope who is misunderstood and also gets trapped by his own myopic views, the grieving mother who can barely survive after the death of her child and marriage, the buffon who offers comedic relief but wants also to be heard and taken seriously. Each actor is magnificent, well directed, and avoids maneuvering into a realm of caricature. 

While this is certainly a film on friendship, on unlikely meetings and surprise relationships despite the best attempts at misanthropy, romantic tension, a sense of yearning is inherent to these relationships, among Fin, Olivia, and Joe, as well as some of the other side characters. I am sure for many, the flirtatious back and forth, the sort of tenuous attraction, between Fin and local librarian, Emily, is a central point of interest in the trajectory of the film. I was ensnared by more subdued, and I think poignant moments: the interactions between Fin and a chubby, African-American grade school girl, Cleo. She is naturally curious about Fin, about his love for trains, his life in the old abandoned station, and he, failing to see the innocence of her curiosity, is frustrated and wary, spurning her friendly advances, her earnest questions. Throughout the course of the story, Cleo adamant in her decision to cultivate an interest in trains as well, Fin eventually comes to realize that she, as a fat girl with darker skin than most of her peers, may be subject to similar stares, similar ostracism. With her persistent attempts to befriend him, to show she cares, through exploring old rail cars, walking the tracks, and, ultimately, inviting Fin to speak about trains to her class, Cleo coaxes Fin out of his proverbial pity shell.

"Walking the right of way" has its colloquial grounding in the times of governmental imminent domain during the epoch of burgeoning industries; as the railroads were built, for transport and commerce, private property was seized. The rails had the right of way, to build bridges between cities, across the land. As the characters trek along the tracks, walking the right of way reveals itself as a grander metaphor: moving forward through life, persevering, thriving, even against some inexplicable power of fate, some authority. There is challenge we can alter, change, and challenge that we cannot, but with the solace of others, we can endure.

(image taken from Superior Pics)    

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful

A few months after my move to New York, adjusting and calibrating to life at my new company, in my new neighborhood, I began an informal book club at work. I had connected with a colleague, in another department, on reading, on writing; she used to live in Crown Heights and we cemented our literary friendship over cheap wine at a monthly reading, hosted by a local bar. The book club was essentially the two of us, joined by another colleague and dear friend, discussing the text in tangents, always ready and willing to be distracted with other nuggets, cultural, professional. She and I, outside of the club meetings, began to discuss our work, workshop structures, frustrations, triumphs. We never consummated any discussion by swapping stories, poems, offering our services in polite but constructive criticism. Ultimately, I am both glad for this, and regret it deeply. For me, writing, technically something I do for a living, is a struggle, at best, a distant memory, at worst. Something I clung to, spoke of like an aging cheerleader, grasping desperately for those four years from the past, pretending nothing has changed, time has stopped. I identify with being a writer, no matter how many days, weeks, months, years have marched along, a ravine between me and the last time I sat, diligent, focused on this vocation.

After applying for a position at a renowned writing camp workshop, this year, she was finally rewarded a spot. I said my congratulations, mediated by my phone and social media, teeth gnashed and feeling desperate. I have been moving without purpose, without focus, and thus without challenge and satisfaction, for quite some time, with no one really to blame other than myself. It has been said before, and will be said again, that one of the most insidious effects of evolving social media platforms is the incitement of furious envy, of fear. Either that fear of potential, of what could be, measured by the curated lives of others, or the fear of lacking, of not accomplishing, not experiencing. Such meditations, such wallowing, is nearly always, always defeatist. To sit and compare, the truth of my life, with the shallow facade of the other, is peel away the skin, be disappointed with the striations beneath, to be angered at the pain and the blood. Successes are not finite. Enrichment is not finite; if you indulge, gorge, I can have my share as well.

To write, be a writer, is not merely to think, to feel, there is effort, so much trying and failing and trying again, defiant or maybe stupid in the face of it all. Angst and sadness and joy and contemplation and love must coalesce, take shape, be shaped. This is an important lesson. Toiling for hours in my cubicle, pushing my boulder to the top, dropping it on the ground and kicking it to the bottom for another pass, hard work after hours, in my house, repulses me. Hard work used to thrill me; I was motivated, craving more, knowledge, experience. Now, I feel perpetually exhausted, and need to pull my own body up and out of the tar trap that a steady corporate job sets. But I feel so hungry.  

(image taken from Poetry Dispatch)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Packing Up

I am on the train south, to Baltimore. My parents have moved from my childhood home, the home where I grew up, lost my first tooth, had my first drink, the home were I marked my height along the edge of my bedroom door each birthday, their home for over twenty-five years. A quarter of a century in a single place seems impossible, a sort of bygone and arcane approach to living life. For me, though, it still seems bizarre, untrue, surreal, that I, my body, my being, my mind, has been in existence for over a quarter of a century, smelling, tasting, feeling, speaking, thinking. I travel down to see the new house, only a handful of miles away from the suburban community that was my playground for those years. In that enclave of typical housewife ennui and over-achievement, I forged my first friendships, other girls who were curious and afraid and confident and unsure; some of these friendships I still nurture, still cherish. My friends, my foes, from years of lanky proto-adolescence, from the high school war zone of hormones and emotions brilliant and sharp like diamonds, some have never left this place. Have they found solace, satisfaction, challenge in the pattern, the smooth continual oscillation in the same trajectory of their parents?

My brother sends me a photograph of the old house, now empty. It is a classic Dutch colonial, one of the first built in the development, wise and proud. I have not been back since the Christmas holidays; I did not enter the threshold for a final time, for that last walk through familiar halls and familiar rooms, a suckling of nostalgia, of tastes both bitter and sweet. Certainly, by this point, pieces of our childhood, now forgotten, by me, by him, by our parents, have been discarded; donated to those less fortunate, hauled off to the local dump by a blue-collar stranger with a big truck looking for some extra cash. The rest is packed, organized, compartmentalized, the physical mirroring our memories. Plastic Barbie dolls intertwined in a dark cardboard casket, shards of rainbow Legos rattling, game boards, old books.

I have not cried, at least, not yet, not over this. Uncharacteristic

The new house is stone, steadfast. Out back, behind, a grass meadow stretches; from recent violent storms, it is lush and green, verdant victory. The sun sets, dark descends, and the lightning bugs emerge, just like they did years ago, when we were small, our hands folding to make tiny fists, when we chased them in crazed vector paths, hoping to capture their brilliance in old glass jar, contain it forever.

(image taken from 16 Sparrows)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Gentrification and Grilled Cheese

I saunter up north along Franklin Avenue to meet the boys at Doris, a relatively new bar, according to hip Brooklyn standards, snug between laundromats and bodegas along Fulton. Walk slow, bask in that ephemeral late afternoon lazy sun. A wide, airy, and tranquil open patio space stretches out across the back; here, they are drinking beers, celebrating a new job. He has never held a steady full-time gig before, the cyclic nine-to-five rhythm, cultural circadian paces; a final toast to freelance freedom. Mismatched picnic tables and white chairs in an askew arc, each emblazoned with a printed page, requesting that patrons keep voices low and conversations quiet and merriment calm, so as to avoid any complaints from neighbors, who want the establishment gone. Inside, we chat with the server, his hair long and knotted in a high bun; he describes in sage detail the process of building the brass bar, long sheets measured and cut and meticulously shaved down to create a sharp, pristine seam. Glass and brass lighting fixtures resembling lantern-prisms, also assuredly handmade, an amalgamation of passion and precision. Donald Fagen croons in the back, emanating vibes from vinyl. The server selects the next record between pouring beer and shaking margaritas. Only cash is accepted. With a clang, with a cling, a drawer swings forward, crumpled bills splayed, splattered with bits of dryingbooze.

Please be quiet, keep voices low; respect the neighbors. This bar is an omen, for some, portending things to come; for others, an oasis. 

After sipping some cocktails, gulping beers, we feast on grilled cheese sandwiches; fontina with truffle oil, braised kale and fennel, chicken chorizo, classic cheddar. Bread perfectly crusted with a healthy dose of butter. I am thankful for my loose black dress, resolve myself to stopping and being comfortably sated, take more bites and become uncomfortable. I could burst, but the night air is a soft, cool tongue, lapping and lapping sweetly, so we drink more, slowly, unwilling to move.

Near midnight, I glide home, coast along astride his ludicrously minute children's bicycle, legs upright and pointed in loose angles to avoid scraping along the pavement. It has been years since I have sat on a bicycle, even more years since that bicycle has been near-minute, one of those where to back-pedal is to brake. We pass a group of old men, waiting idly, perhaps for a local bus, perhaps not. 

"Just let go, girl, let go, you're really flying," they laugh and shout as I pass.

We walk to the farmer's market, along a side street, and stumble upon a pick-up game of stickball, the players a group of old Italian men, a gaggle of small boys, these teams obviously playing this game on this street for decades. Meeting up on the sidewalk, dividing into two teams, just like they did when they were seven years old, limbs gangly, knees scraped, eyes fresh and skin taut. We stand to one side for a moment, watch a few pitches. One old man strikes out, swinging the long, thin wooden bat into the air at each pitched ball with abandon. The next makes contact, the rubber ball flies out into the paved street field, he begins to slowly run the bases.

(image taken from Ephemeral New York)   

Friday, June 20, 2014

Executive Power

Over the last few weeks, I have fallen prey to the talons of instant-streaming-induced binge-watching, in particular, becoming a living stereotype of the so honest it is hilarious Portlandia sketch: I am addicted to popular science-fiction drama Battlestar Galactica. Literature, film, television with a streak of fantasy, of futuristic speculation, has always interested me; from my first foray into dystopian possibilities with The Giver to the mesmerizing tales from the Tripod trilogy, a fundamental reading assignment for my fifth grade class that really captured a similar mankind will to survive and thrive. While humanity battling against machines, while hurtling through the far reaches of space, is an immediate draw to me, Battlestar Galactica has also garnered the love and respect of those who would never admit, or never even though, speculative fiction would appeal to them. In parallel to the war against morally ambiguous, and conscience-ambiguous, super-cybernetic-robots, the show hinges on political and military conflicts and intrigues, as the few thousand remaining humans attempt to maintain some semblance of their former civilization, culturally and sociopolitically. So, the show has been a favorite among those who relish in the narrative trajectories of the triumphs, weaknesses, failures, and betrayals of our leaders.

In the first season, President Laura Roslin, executive leader of the roaming colonies, banished from their home planets, discusses with the commander of their military ship, the Battlestar Galactica, the difficult decisions the fleet has made, and particularly the burden of the decisions she, as president, has made. Decisions to attack, to retreat. Decisions to defuse and disable opponents, machine and man alike. A lower government official before the watershed nuclear attack that destroys most of humanity, the government included, she recounts a bit of counsel the late President Adar imparted: "One of the most interesting things about being president is you don't have to explain yourself, to anyone." Maybe more so than any other situation so far presented on the show, this encapsulates so accurately our current milieu. 

Earlier this week, President Obama deployed more troops in Iraq, to support the Iraqi military in suppressing rebel groups who have taken control of territory in the north of the country. Continuing in the rich heritage of other former United States presidents to directly and physically intervene, with vehement and powerful military force and resources, in the politics of the Middle East, this comes on the end of the interesting, debated prisoner swap, a seemingly unilateral command that leaves many here and abroad confused about the implications on duty to fellow citizens as well as on the elegant checks-and-balances of our democratic system. When he was first elected, I was elated; after enduring eight years of unnecessary war during the Bush era, propagated by contorted patriotic propaganda and the vested interests of various corporations, globally, the de-militarize, dis-engage platform promoted by President Obama was hopeful. It was, or could have been, true change. Throughout his first term, and now consistent into the second, I have hardened to disappointment.

Perhaps the evolution of an instant and, hopefully, transparent global communication environment, fueled by a vibrant, ever-churning behemoth media industry and the technological-social platforms to facilitate these transactions on a massive scale, has fostered a sense among the public that, indeed, explanation and justification and rationale is required, is demanded, for the choices and behaviors of our political and economic leaders. In recent decades, scrutiny has heightened and the details surrounding even sensitive decisions can, and often does, become available for broad consumption, interpretation, manipulation, and, ultimately, propagation. In tandem to this path, the desire to side-step accountability, to act unilaterally, to adopt that attitude summarized by the fictional President Adar, seems to also grow in potency. There could be a pretense that restraining from public discourse for certain situations is protection. A sort of paternal authority: I know best. These repelling movements seem at such odds, seem that they would oppose one another, cause a system to collapse. 

It would be silly to assume that the Founding Fathers, that every president from Washington on, did not adopt a similar stance. Memory is always flawed, subjective; the history books have a funny way of capturing details, choosing their portraits.  

(image taken from National Park Service)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Coco Chanel and Change

"A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life." 
-- Coco Chanel

We took our project into the living room, among the cheap vinyl and faux-wood couches of our pre-furnished apartment; the light here was stronger than that in the cavern bathroom. My hair was dry, which probably made some type of difference. We decided on a thick, straight, blunt bang, solid hair across my forehead, above my eyes. Scrunching my eyes shut tight, for protection, she slowly snipped the strands of hair, hands and fingers manipulating the scissors in an unsure but steady confidence. Occasionally growing long and cumbersome from my delinquency in grooming, the bangs have, essentially, been my staple style ever since that evening at university, mildly bored with one of my best friends, when an idle discussion about a new hair cut turned into action. I have not changed since; sometimes, the hair is longer, the layers or the angles more dramatically trimmed, but the same general shape, same feel, ultimately maintained. 

I have never taken a true risk, a risk of the magnitude that create icons, whether heroic or tragic, a risk where success means an empire, a legacy, when coupled with a healthy dose of chance and hard work, a heavy dose of passion and dedication. A woman, like Coco, does not become a bit of history, without such willingness and openness to catalyzing her own change. I am not seeking to become a grand historical figure, but to make impact, to build something beyond the ordinary, against the grain, to instigate some greater downstream effect from one's own contained sense of self, there must be some risk, some impetus for uncertainty. Despite an intellectual and philosophical curiosity, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, of some crash and burn from which I cannot recover, keep me fettered to a known and tried path, to habit and comfort. This quality in myself, this fear or lack of courage, as a type of meta-problem, is a quality I want to change and cannot seem to.

(image taken from Visionary Artistry Magazine)  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Girl Boss

At my previous position, my first formal job following completion of my formal university education, three men originally stood at the helm, partners in the small, privately-owned business; during my tenure there, two of the partners bought out the third, resulting in a rather tumultuous cascade of organizational and financial chaos. An instance of rather cosmic symmetry, my current position is within an advertising agency led by two women; before my time, both of whom had allied to remove their original third partner, also a woman. Operating a successful small business is arduous and not for everyone, as my experience illustrates; and while, traditionally and mathematically, triads can offer greater balance and support than a dual system, in practice, the two-against-one strategy often results in remove the one, particularly when issues of differences in vision, or division of labor and profits, enter into the equation.

As a young professional woman, I was intrigued and attracted to an organization that prided itself on fostering the leadership development of other young professional women. My former company was, indeed, predominantly women, as were our clients; however, possibly due to their arcane, and ineffective, methods for business development, the practice of schedule lunches with those in the Rolodex and draw up some project on the back of a cocktail napkin, and to their myopic and narcissistic personalities, the partners, my bosses, always seemed to evoke some entrenched patriarchal authority, both condescending and manipulative when necessary.  For most employees, there was a persistent tension of playing and being played; every comment, every maneuver, seemed perfectly calculated and imbued with some meaning. There was a sense of being semi-autonomous pawns; intelligent, hard working, but ultimately malleable, pieces to be moved, to be convinced.

Naively, while interviewing for my current position, I was hopeful that female leaders would offer a refreshing and near total alternative to this management style, which, in my experience, had proven destructive, from a business returns perspective as well as a personal satisfaction perspective. Business is business, and certain traits that blend together to alchemize an ideal business leader, while evolving with broader cultural and economic trends, have not changed drastically, whether that leader is a man or a woman. The ability to act both selfishly and altruistically; the ability to take and to hold an aggressive stance, or an unpopular one; the ability to inspire, to instill courage or hope or a tenacious work ethic in others; the ability to craft a vision, to believe it, to mold other believers. Specific industries will require specific knowledge, skills, nuances in personality, but, I believe some overarching tenets will hold true. Starting my first day, I was optimistic that a more strategically holistic approach to problem solving, to business development, would be engendered by our oft-proclaimed fairer sex. That listening would precede speaking; that jargon and double-speak would be replaced with genuine, honest dialogue. A year in of keen observation, the politics that can entangle any organization, of any size, obviously still exist and prevail; there is still a sense of a lack of personal connection, which, for me, has seemed to generally form the foundation for respect and value of the unique skills and contributions of another. It is, and was, foolish to conflate this onto gender alone, that a swapping of some chromosomes, and the lived experiences that such a swap confers, would result in a drastic difference between the two sets of leaders. Optimism, a rare bout, clouded my pragmatism. Perhaps, in my search for a great change, I inflated and contorted my expectations; in finding a minor change, I was sharply disappointed, but, worse, quickly complacent.

After a few months at the new office, I learned that there was an extracurricular women's development group, individuals invited by one of the partners to meet after-hours, aptly named the Lean In Group. Time passed, and I was not extended an invitation to participate, which unnerved the Type A fibers in me, while the bohemian, romantic, artistic bits scattered in between sighed with relief. I would be lying, though, if I did not admit that I felt hurt and a bit inadequate. These have since contributed to a consistent vacillation between a "work harder, work better" and a "screw this" mentality. From what I can glean through brief conversations with a few friends in the office, the events typically involve drinking wine and listening to the partner lecture, with some discussion here and there. Without having attended, it seems not particularly useful, but rather benign as well; the greatest advantage, likely, appears to be those moments of "face time" with the boss, a sort of widely accepted and practiced display of deference and positive, subtle veneration, of some quick quips, in hopes of staying in good graces come promotion time. While certainly not above partaking in these traditional office rituals, they can be both tiring and uncomfortable; additional free time, liberated from these affectations, is never unwelcome.

The Lean In Group is obviously named after the behemoth, popular pseudo-feminist cultural movement catalyzed by Sheryl Sandberg's book of the same name, which rippled from the business sector to the broader cultural realm. I have not read her book, and am not sure I intend to, with so many other books of interest piling around my shelves, but the general points and the impact her words are inescapable, with the various media dialogue, tangential influences, and branching projects, such as the Lean In collection of contemporary, progressive stock photography of women. While heightened attention and conversation surrounding the many, many barriers and challenges women continue to face on a daily basis in our society is commendable and helpful, what I have found problematic about this particular breed of current pop-feminist rhetoric is that the lessons promote or explain overcoming within the current patriarchal institution. Essentially, how to play by the rules of the system or break the rules of the system to succeed, as a woman. What lacks are critical dialogues surrounding how to fundamentally change or adjust these norms, such that women do not have to swerve or bend or accommodate to the current system, but rather our goals, priorities, perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses are integrated and assimilated.

In a similar vein to Sandberg, though offering a decidedly anti-hero kind of approach to the memoir-style business book, Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso's #GIRLBOSS has sky-rocketed, following a similarly steep upward trajectory as her retail brand. I, also, have not yet read this book, and while I am a bit skeptical as to how much of her unique life experience and work in the fashion and merchandising business will translate directly to some of current situation, I am curious and do admire her against the grain attitude. I respect that she rolls up her sleeves, gets her hands dirty in her business, wants the best and brightest getting dirty along with her, and, seemingly, loves what she has created. Funnily enough, in addition to commercial, consumable, pre-packaged feminism, the anti-hero is having a strong cultural moment as well. Though likely not delving into any academic discourse territory on how best to fundamentally subvert and overthrow patriarchy to create an actual equal space for women, it seems Amoruso's walk-to-the-beat-of-your-drum problem-solving and leadership style would speak to some of my frustrations in the seemingly robotic, replicable veneer of leadership qualities I have come to accept over the past few years, from men and women alike. 

When I was younger, growing up, I always felt I would, or should, ultimately be my own captain. I have never envisioned myself at the top of a large, impersonal heap; even in terms of friendships, those types of relationships and those dynamics have been unnatural and undesirable to me. I have always veered too close to utter independence to care too deeply for what the masses think, which ends up being a bit of a detriment in the case of a large and broad organization; again, that balance of selfish and self-conscious is not easily struck by most. But leading something intimate, something true and unadulterated, with a few, close others who care as deeply as I; this is something that seems reasonable and honest to my strengths.  

(image taken from The Indie Source)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mermaid Fantasies, Revisited

In the dank corners of our partially finished basements, amidst water-heater tanks and mutating crickets, our mothers stowed plastic bins, stuffed with discarded cocktail dresses, dance costumes, loose suits, brazen ties, and more, our prized dress-up boxes. Sometimes, we draped beads over our thin necks, cascades of beads, streams, so many bits of tawdry metallic plastic they covered our flat nipples, some crass bit of fanciful armor. Sometimes, we wore old eyeglasses, lens thick and growing opaque, distorting the cracked tile ground, warping our steps, making us dizzy with disorientation. Mostly, we stepped gingerly into old swim suits, tied sashes around our nascent breasts, and became mermaids.

One summer, large, bronze men descended upon the house, crawled onto the roof, peeled away bits of black tile like black scales, the house an exposed and raw carcass, clean. As they filed into the kitchen to gulp water, we giggled and waved. Ignored, we donned sequins and bizarre tassels, and before the bedroom windows, which faced the hot roof, we undulated. Our bellies were bellies still, that purgatory between the fat collected as a baby in the womb and stomachs taut from running wild and fast. Bellies round, limbs loose and flaying, we undulated, mimicking seductive creatures we had observed somewhere but whose artful displays remained enigmatically elusive. Sideways glances, shaking heads, the occasional pitiful smile. At the end of the day, our mothers hollered our names, those shouts plucking us cruelly from the depths of our oceans back to this dry world; sashes, sequins discarded, we ran to the dinner table.

(image taken from Rebloggy)  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mermaid Fantasies

A rather banal argument serves as a catalyst for the narrative trajectory and conflict throughout the entire film: the husband, a physician, specialty not disclosed, wishes to spend his holiday in a remote shore town, fishing, communing with the tide, and the wife wishes to be left alone, amid her comfortable urban life. That a mermaid film opens with such a marital dispute is not at all surprising; where Miranda delivers some nuance and twist is in the adaptation of the classic mythological creature and her pivotal role in enhancing balance and equity to the relationship, as well as strengthening the foundational love and respect requisite for matrimony. While still-entrenched patronizing patriarchal standards of sexual seduction and power dialectics within sexual relationships, whether or not they are emotionally intimate, prevail, for a mid-twentieth century film, there is a female empowerment lean. In an age predating institutional feminist theory, and cultural awareness of the social, political, and economic implications of challenging male dominance, finding a film like this refreshing seems at odds with its generally quaint and exasperating messages. As a fan of old Hollywood, and a cynic who is willing to state to all who will listen that, even more frustrating, are contemporary films wherein sexual politics have not budged, at all, I found Miranda delightfully agreeable.

During his rural holiday, while coasting along the waves, fishing rod in hand, the husband, Dr. Paul Martin, is caught by Miranda the mermaid, plucked from his dry boat under the water's surface and into her balmy cave home. An overt reversal in the role of fisher-fished, this scene is also a paradigm shift for the mermaid myth: rather than traditional intoxicating but malevolent lure, she is proactive, seizing an opportunity, by literally seizing a man she finds attractive and then subsequently bartering with him. It is a fair deal, his freedom, for a few days of her own liberation from the sea, exploring the realm of humans in London. While Dr. Martin is a bit distressed when sequestered underwater, worried about the baser of Maslov needs, breathable oxygen, adequate nutrition, he does warm to her advances. Once they agree, however, to the London excursion, Miranda guised as some serious patient, his wife, Clare, is nearly forgotten and he is firmly entranced by her blissful ignorance and coquettish looks. 

Throughout her escapades in London, Miranda succeeds in ensnaring all the men she encounters, much to the obvious chagrin of their partners. Clare, immediately skeptical of the patient ruse upon meeting the mermaid and realizing she is young and beautiful, is rather flexible, all things considered. Welcoming the patient into her home, accommodating her obviously bizarre needs, Clare acknowledges that her husband's attentions are divided but adopts a listen-and-learn response, rather than aggressively attacking him. The couple's chauffeur and general manservant, a quaint artifact of bygone times for the upper middle class, also succumbs to the allure of the mermaid. Conveniently in a relationship with the maid, he fumbles to spend time with Miranda, while his partner fumes and bemoans his fickle love. Clare's friend Isobel, the Martin's neighbor, also finds herself in a relationship predicament, as her fiance and budding artist also falls prey to Miranda. 

Much of the film's comedic conflict lays in the ignorance of the male characters; so enthralled are they with Miranda's beauty and her exoticism, they are blind to the fact that she flirts with them and any other man she encounters equally. She admits to admiring them each for various individual reasons, but the notion of monogamy and fidelity to any single one of them is a laughable to her. When her trysts with all three men are exposed and her true identity finally revealed to Clare and the other women, and she is threatened with broad public exposure, rather than lay in wait to become a victim, a scientific novelty and general cultural oddity, Miranda flees. Her resilience and her agency is commendable; she had her cake, ate of it, and left without paying the bill. While most widely disseminated, popular contemporary romantic comedies seem to continually enforce that a woman's sexual satisfaction must exist within the confines of a traditional heteronormative construct, Miranda, in spite of being backward in other overt senses, offers a progressive view of sexual satisfaction, male and female. Without wholly disregarding the value of intimate relationships, the film emphasizes that flirtation, seduction, sex can just be fun, while also reinforcing that still no choice is without ramifications. 

Perhaps a bit insensitive to the women who were hurt by her antics, Miranda does nonetheless seem to understand that what she seeks, a playful romantic romp, differs from the relationships already established that she is disrupting. Despite the dishonesty and the lapses in loyalty, each couple ends the film with a stronger relationship, more firmly rooted in trust, more open. That such breaches in general heteronormative relationship code, trust and fidelity, are treated with an open-mind on the part of the female partner in a film decades old is liberating. Mythology and fantasy aside, perhaps the plot is rather unbelievable; in reality, such understanding and forgiveness may be more rare. The optimist in me, sometimes small and cowardly compared to my inner realist, wants to believe in a happily ever after for each of the characters, despite their obvious flaws. Fulfillment for Miranda, despite her selfishness and capricious nature. Fulfillment for Clare, despite her lapse into the vindictive. Fulfillment for Dr. Martin, despite his lies, his scheming.

(image taken from Flippin Your Fins)   

Monday, May 12, 2014

Stumbling Upon

Over four million people ride the New York City subway system every day. Train doors heaving open, sighing shut, hustling bodies either spewing forth onto platforms or jamming intimately into sweating train cars, it always seems a simultaneous impossibility and inevitability that you will run into someone you know. With such masses, all faces seem anonymous, a sea of strangers. With such masses, statistically, it is very plausible that you will bump into an old friend, a former colleague, that girl from your chemistry lab sophomore year. Riding the same lines each day to and fro, your body attuning to the rhythmic sways and jumps of those particular train cars, yawning and straining and lumbering like some primordial earthen beasts, fellow passengers stay distant, but grow familiar. Become soothing characters. About once a week, as I enter the platform at Penn Station, heading back to my neighborhood after a long day in the office, I nearly collide with an older black man, hair awry and tinted with streaks of silver, listening to a Walkman, quaint, and gesticulating wildly. He claps his hands, stomps his sneakers hard, slap, slap, slap against rock pavement. His presence, for now, a soft remainder of the power of our relationship with our interior selves, our relevance of a firm grasp on reality, and of those mostly reliable, until they are not, circadian rhythms of life.

One evening, pressed between a man in a classic charcoal suit and some youth, cap backwards, music loud, I thought I recognized a woman in the middle of the car. Her hair had a memorable wild curl, soft yet assuredly frustratingly unruly, and her eyes were equally memorable round dark moons. I was nearly certain she was my geometry teacher from freshman year of high school. When I was fourteen years old, dreadfully uncomfortable in my new ecosystem, an all-girls private school predominantly populated with the daughters of local wealthy alphas, she was in her early twenties, and seemed to glide effortlessly along to the off-beat of her proverbial drum. While not the most provocatively progressive environment, the school was religiously-independent and liberal, renowned for a robust history of academic rigor; she had staunch Christian principles, which, among a frenzy of pulsing adolescent girls, are not the most popular of beliefs. Fostering a real intimate sense of community, our teachers were very open with us, the traditional pedagogical power structure more nebulous. All together again was a permeating mantraShe spoke freely about waiting until marriage, about not drinking, two tenets that seemed alien for throngs of girls anxious for someone to touch them, who stole liquor regularly and cavalierly from their parents. She was fiercely passionate about mathematics, athletics, volunteering as our junior varsity basketball coach that year. Lean and lanky, alabaster skin with that crop of curls, those dark eyes, she always struck me as fresh; she wore no make up, dressed simply, unlike us students, in a sort of uniform of her own choosing. That type of wiry that quivers with potential energy, like a string, pulled taut. Refreshingly, her disclosure about her own personal views, while leaning towards soft encouragement, were far from preaching or pedantic. Reassuring us; she would listen, her door was open.

Every other day of the week in the rotation schedule, geometry was my first period class. I was one of three freshman students, having already taken the requisite algebra courses at my public middle school. During my year-long tenure at the school, before abandoning the endeavor and returning to my equally academically strong, public high school, I made a few allies, but no true friends. Unlike many of my peers, I often choose to arrive to homeroom early, rather than congregate and giggle in the hallways. I was certainly diligent and studious, but not so fastidious that I craved those precious moments for catching up on schoolwork, rather, I took solace in those brief moments of, generally, welcome silence. One morning, a few days following September 11, eyes down, mind muddled, I pushed open the door to the classroom, without looking. She was leading a small prayer vigil, holding hands with a few students and another teacher, heads bowed in respect. Disrupted, as I hesitated after barging in, muscling the door, she looked up, quiet, eyes dark and looming and immeasurably sad.

I may have mumbled some excuse or apology, before ducking quickly out, heading either to one of the numerous outdoor patio spaces, or perhaps the sterile and beautiful cafeteria. Mortified, and confused, unsure of my own thoughts and feelings of the events of recent weeks, I never formally apologized for interrupting, something I continue to regret to this day. Superficially, such a minor event. Opening a door, finding a room not empty but occupied. I am sure it was the gravity of the times, those tenuous weeks of uneasiness, of fear, of suspicion, of mistrust. The interior world of adolescence was already one of great tumult; the exterior sociopolitical climate seemed to only heighten these feelings of complete unease. After my freshman year, I left the private school, returned to the larger, grittier halls of the more familiar public school. While still in high school, that brief stint in another stratum seemed like a blotch, some odd and unreal experience, not quite so dark as a nightmare, but tinted with a similar anxiety. With some more years and more wisdom, I recognize the experience for what it was: a challenge, but a brilliant opportunity, and one that afforded me an education with some of the greatest and most impassioned teachers I have ever known.

On that subway train, I stared, barely bordering on polite, trying to confirm, to be certain. I spent most of that ride home wondering; what was she reading? Why had she moved to this city? Does she still teach? Does she still pray? Is she still waiting, for love, for lust, for that primal urge so many of us lunge after, that affirmation of our biology, of our physicality? Quite possibly, the woman was simply a stranger, in a sea of strangers, her wild curls of hair a catalyst for reflection.

(image taken from The Gothamist)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Visitors

(image taken from NY Times) 

 (image taken from CBC Music)

 (image taken from Toronto Film Festival) 

A few weeks ago, the filmmaker and I went to the Sunshine Theater for a screening of the latest Godfrey Reggio film, The Visitors. For me, it was my first foray into the aesthetic and philosophical realm of Reggio, which the filmmaker admitted and bemoaned, a few weeks later following a screening of the infamous and stunning Koyaanisqatsi at the Museum of Arts and Design, was perhaps not an ideal introduction, deviating substantially in style and tone from his other celebrated works. While certainly not disappointed that I experienced The Visitors before the others, I understand what he meant. Also an exploration of the ever-evolving triangulated relationship between humans, the natural environment, and the technologies we have developed and harnessed in creating civilizations, unlike Koyaanisqatsi, The Visitors is contained and controlled. Rather than extended sweeps of grandiose landscapes and rather candid moments with an array of people on city streets, people walking and talking and staring, oblivious to or ambivalent to the camera, the individuals are posed, staring into the lens and seemingly into the eyes of the audience directly, explicitly, with purpose, individuals isolated in a black and sterile capsule.

Initially, this struck me as an orchestrated posture of one of the most primitive modes of interaction and communication between people, in this case, the faces slowly flashed upon the movie screen and the gazing faces of the audience members: eye contact. A collection of bizarre and beautiful extended eye contact moments, with a diverse group of people, mediated through the screen. Almost stagnant portraits, save for slight shifts in expression; the tightening of a grimace, a bit of lip turned upward. A celebration of the brilliant malleability of our facial musculature. Discussing this with the filmmaker, he offered that perhaps the various individual faces that visually accost the audience are, rather than staring at us, intended to be staring intently into a screen. This interpretation, even coupled with my own perspective, presents a great mirror and an elegantly symmetrical framework for these portions of the film: we, seated in a cool and darkened theater, stare into a screen, silent, as the faces of young boys, girls, older men, women, stare into a screen, neither party able to properly access or touch or engage with the group on the other side. With this view, the myriad spectrum of expressions and looks become grounded, not in a sense of how we interact with another individual, face to face, but with how we interact with popular and nearly omnipresent technological social platforms, which facilitate the exchange of information and of stories so efficiently that we do not, or may not, require face to face interaction. Our collective attention, us the audience, and them the filmed, is focused on the movie screen, though us the audience are focused on the exchange of faces; what they the filmed contemplate remains a mystery.

Confronted with these various faces, vacant, bemused, thinking, I was reminded, forced to remember, really, how little eye contact I seem to make these days, with those around me, with people I pass on the subway, the street, my colleagues at work. It was a lesson enforced, from those earliest years, making polite eye contact, acknowledging someone, connecting with them, for a brief moment. Lately, I cannot seem to hold eyes, to make that acknowledgement. During those near two hours, in that dark theater, I had made more extended eye contact than it seemed I have in years.

My niece is a little over two years old; though it is rationed and supervised, she is allowed to play with the household computer, tablet, old versions of cellular telephones, in small doses, few and far between her sessions with wooden blocks, a kitchen stove, a miniature tea set. I am always fascinated that she and her generational peers, who I regularly spy on the subway, in restaurants, out and about, have an almost innate facility with these devices. Swiping to new screens, selecting icons, playing high resolution videos, their chubby, freshly formed fingers perform these adroitly. One might say this is a testament to the user experience and ergonomic design of these tools, sculpted to our intuition, but I am not sure.

Included in this spectrum of dynamic portraits is a female gorilla; indeed, the film opens and closes with long shots of her face, stern, prosaic, concentrated. Emotive and familiar, her floating face is a visual reminder of our shared ancestry with her species, of our natural journey on this planet, from a smattering of cosmic dust eons and eons ago, to the fumbling puzzle pieces of the pioneering proteins, to those first bipedal steps away from the cluster of trees and those monumental milestones in language, agriculture, engineering, architecture, culture. She is a visual reminder that, ultimately, we are all mere visitors to this planet and this life, each of us individually, and also collectively, our communities, our nations, our species. 

 (image taken from Blackbook)

 (image taken from Philly Magazine)

Another stylistic similarity to earlier works, Reggio interspersed between his facial portraits majestic shots of tall, grandiose buildings, of abandoned warehouses, of a silent and empty amusement park, of natural landscapes. Again, these visuals lack a certain frenetic energy that seems characteristic of these earlier works; the buildings, the wooden frame of a once-speeding roller coaster are stoic, almost surreal, in that it seems impossible to imagine that they are products of human creation, designed for human use and purpose. The skyscrapers, splattered with dark windows in a perfect grid, are stark and domineering, incongruously alien and unfamiliar. The roller coaster, in a sense the epitome of the hybridization of the application of physics and the indulgence in pure visceral entertainment, also stands stark, domineering, alien without the context of human interaction with the space. These typical and recognizable spaces of human engagement, silent and empty, maintain their beauty, but seem to lose a bit of their meaning.

Dining in a small hotel bar the other evening with a charming colleague of mine, a Southern gentleman, we discussed evolving social engagement platforms and made a number of jovial, but not trivial, jokes about the use of the notion of connectedness. Being connected, to friends, family, loved ones, partners, business associates, through a medium, via a screen and a designed piece of technology, rather than a face to face conversation. Rather than extended eye contact. Rather than the friendly shake of a warm hand, an embrace, where you can hear and feel the pulsing of blood into and out of the heart in the chest of the other.