My Mom: The Top Ten

11 May

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My mom on her bike. A Saturday with my mom usually involves a 20 mile bike ride, a weight lifting session at the Y, and a yoga class. At some point, there is also a Dinglewood hot dog mixed in there, too. 

If you haven’t had the privilege of meeting the marvelous Miz Em, I’m sorry. My mother is probably the coolest person I know, and the best mom. She’s been to multiple performances of almost every play I’ve ever done, has suffered through some pretty terrible violin recitals and has cheered me on through some great voice recitals, has supported me in whatever I wanted to do, and has once made me a Rainbow Brite costume that involved 37 pieces and a yarn wig and that was totally BA. It is hard for me to describe my mom, so I’m going to do it by giving you a list of the ten greatest things she has ever said:

1. “Have as maaaaany as you want.” – Said when my cousins asked her how many donuts we could have.

2. “If you all do not sit down and be quiet, then I am going to boxilate you.” – Said when my cousins and brother and I, probably after a box of donuts, were bouncing around the mini-van screaming and hitting each other. My mother had no other object at her disposal but a Kleenex box, which she brandished high above her head as she said this.”

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3. “It looks like the rats ate them.” Said when she opened up a box of paper mache bracelets we’d made in girl scouts and left in city’s rat infested girl scout huts. My mother,  our troupe leader, also taught us how to make fires, how to survive the bathrooms at  Camp Concharty, and that ears were “weird things on everyone – let’s just admit it. All our ears are weird!” (said to a girl who was being teased about her ears, I’d forgotten this, but this stuck with the girl as being a great comfort).

4. “Honey, smile at him. Men like it when you smile.” Said to me at a funeral home, when she was trying to set me up with someone. My mom is always on the lookout for a good looking young man for me, no matter the occasion. Her latest find: the golfer, Adam Scott. “He’s good looking and he’s just come into a lot of money!”

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5. “There are worse things than ending up alone.” Said when I bemoaned what I sometimes see to be my fate as an old maid cat lady. Though she does in jest try to set me up with people, she knows that deep down, the most important thing is that I’m happy with myself.

6. “Oh lord, we’re going to be like Grey Gardens.” Said to me when I told my mom that I was going to write a play about us and that she would be in it. I told her not to worry, that we weren’t feeding raccoons in the attic just yet. Image

7. “If God was so opposed to gay marriage, then why isn’t in the the dang ten commandments?” Exclaimed at some pundit on TV.

8. “Three dozen bagels, sir.” Said to a customs officers when asked if we were bringing back any food from Canada.

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9. “Be optimistic…” Sung by my mother in a department store, in front of one of the popular kids in my class and his mother, when I was in middle school. At the time, I wanted to bury myself in one of the clothing racks, and now, I just appreciate it as my mother’s sense of humor.

10. “She’s going to do whatever she wants to do.” Said to a woman who asked – rather rudely – what in the world I was ever going to do with a BA in English.

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Grey.

1 May

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Yesterday, I happened across an article that just really pissed me off – ok, more than pissed me off, I’ll say it enraged me for good while. That it was on Buzzfeed, a fluff site that serves as an aggregator of all the viral vomit on the web did not make me feel any better about the article, though I do really think that they should stick to funny pictures of cats and hipsters, because that’s about all those hacks have going for them. (I would have been more diplomatic with that, but I don’t want to).

            The screed posing as an article titled itself “Why the South Should Secede.” I went into it thinking I’d either be reading a satirical piece or something that made some good points while managing not to be inflammatory. I have no idea why I thought this – it is perhaps my optimistic good nature (ha. ha. ha.)

            What I found instead was a sort of crazy rant that talked about how terrible the south was (we apparently have no good universities or museums here – the guy knew enough not to touch literature, however) and how much the south is holding the rest of the nation back from making progress.

            Oh really? I thought (Or, as the buzzfeedbags would say, O rly???) So the issue is just black and white? (Or, excuse me, red and blue?) So ALL the nutsos are down south? I do wonder where that would put Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Anne Coulter, or Rupert Murdoch – all the types of people this article was targeting, yet none of which are actual “southerners.” My guess is that the author would say well, they might as well be, but then you’re not talking about a regional division at all, but rather a much murkier demographic.

            Suddenly, it becomes too complex for you to handle in your article that’s been divided up into soundbytes, chewed up, and regurgitated onto the interwebs.

            What pissed me off the most about the article was how wrong it gets the solution. The author, in trying to cover those of us who are “sane” southerners because we vote “blue” (yeah, and I wonder where it would put those of us who aren’t red or blue but rather green?), did extend one olive branch to us: if the south were to secede, we could all just move north!

            Even if taken as joke – even if the author just meant that all the sane southerners should move to the north regardless of secession – even then, it’s not just stupid, it’s disrespectful to those of us in the south who’ve been working our asses off to make a difference for our communities because we care enough to think that we can make a change. I think of my mom, who works hard every day with her hearing-impaired students in Georgia, and my dad, who boycotted his high school graduation in Mississippi when the administration tried to do some sneaky stuff and deny an African-American girl the salutatorian title. They may be southern, but they’ve done some stuff that I bet even the most “progressive” northerners might not have the guts to do.

            I couldn’t help but wonder what the world would be like if MLK had taken one look at the Georgia he was born in and said eff this mess I’m getting the hell out, and stayed in Boston. I would really hate to live in that world.

            When I read this, I thought of all my friends who had worked like hell to keep amendment 1 from passing, and who may have “lost”  this battle but who did a lot for public perception of the LGBT community. These friends are real southern people, with real southern accents, with real southern hospitality, and with real good recipes for coconut pie. These people, to me, are one of the faces of the south, a culture that can hardly be painted over in one picture – just read any of Faulkner’s works, and you’ll know what I mean.

            I also thought of a news article I’d read that morning, about the head of the NAACP in North Carolina, the wise and wonderful Rev. Barber, who’d been arrested Monday for protesting measures by the new republican-led agenda in the state senate.

            The thing that the buzzfeed article forgets is that so few things in this life are black or white. Mostly, things reside in a murky grey area that requires analysis and thought. To throw all of the south out, you’d have to throw out the Dr. Barbers and the MLKs, the Tennessee Williams and the Carson McCullers, and the fried chicken and the sweet tea.

            And who would want to live in that world?

Aside

The Datafication of Art

27 Apr

Earlier today, I read a great article about the rise of “Big Data.” This article argues that “big data,” meaning our emerging ability to collect scores and scores of data, will eliminate the need for random sampling and will perhaps be more accurate than random sampling, or will at least have the capacity to be more precise and specific. The article does, however, warn that with the emergence of new data, we will have to be particularly careful not to “see causes even when none exist.” They went on to tell a story about Google’s attempt to map influenza outbreaks in the US based on user searches. Google’s system wasn’t perfect, but it did “hint in the general direction.”

I’m not going to summarize the whole article – you should read it – but I would also like to note another point the authors reach in the end, which is that even all the data in the world will not be able to replace “the human touch.” To me, this was their most compelling argument:

If Henry Ford had queried big-data algorithms to discover what his customers wanted, they would have come back with “a faster horse,” to recast his famous line. In a world of big data, it is the most human traits that will need to be fostered — creativity, intuition, and intellectual ambition — since human ingenuity is the source of progress.

             One thing in particular that this article brought to mind for me was the new Netflix “TV series,” House of Cards. I will admit: I love House of Cards, and I watched the whole season in four days. (Ok, maybe I shouldn’t admit that). But here is the thing about House of Cards: it was developed around an algorithm that took the data that Netflix collected from their viewers and that then determined that these viewers like to watch the British TV series House of Cards, and that they also like to watch political thrillers, movies with Kevin Spacey, and movies directed by David Fincher. And thus, we have House of Cards, which is a political thriller re-make of the British House of Cards, and that stars Kevin Spacey and is directed by David Fincher.

This isn’t a new thing to do – movie producers have been using test audiences for years, and so have theater producers. Authors might even write in a certain genre to sell more books, and certainly some plots have been drawn up with an eye to what people will buy. This does make sense to an extent, because authors and filmmakers often make a living off of their art – they have to make money to be able to fund the work

This got me wondering though: at what point does datafication destroy art? At what point does giving people what they want turn art into another beast entirely? I know that there has  been a long standing debate over whether art imitates life or whether it is the other way around, and I do acknowledge that no art is created in a vacuum – that we do tend to create with hopes of one day having an audience and that the goal is after all to connect with an audience, and yet it still is awfully disheartening to think that so much of art might be about making an audience feel more comfortable, or feel happier, or better, etc. I don’t have anything against happiness per se, but it isn’t always the desired by-product of art (though to be fair, I’d say the same about sadness and melodrama, ie, Titanic). 

I went to go see My Fair Lady tonight at the Triad Stage. During the show, I thought a lot about datafication because I realized that  this is exactly what Henry Higgins is doing to Eliza Dolittle: he is using the data that he has collected to form her into the “perfect woman.” In the end, he messes up and almost loses her because he has spent so much time forming her and not enough time caring about her – he’s spent more time on the data than “the human touch.” And yet, of course, because this is a musical, she returns to him in the end.

This is maybe my least favorite part of the musical, because I don’t think he’s learned anything, and I can’t actually imagine the two of them being happy together, because it is never really clear to me that he’s moved past seeing her as an algorithm.

Actually, My Fair Lady isn’t an original – you probably know that it was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. In the original ending of Pygmalion, however, Eliza does not return to Henry Higgins. Instead, she runs off with Freddy. This was how Shaw wrote it and how the play ran for the first few productions, and yet, when Shaw returned back to the theater to watch the 100th performance of his show, however, he was dismayed to watch as the actor who played Higgins (who also happened to be the theater manager) returned to Eliza in the end.

“My ending makes money,” the theater owner said.

Shaw spat back that his ending was “damnable” and that he “ought to be shot,” and then he attached a postscript that explained why Eliza and Henry could never get married.

My Fair Lady was not written by Shaw and was in fact produced after Shaw’s death. In the end, of course, Eliza return to Henry.  My Fair Lady sold very well – it broke a Broadway record at the time, was made into a movie, and continues to be performed in revivals across the country. Indeed, it is an iconic play.

But is it art? Well, you tell me.

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(Pictured above is Pygmalion et Galatea by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson) 

Happy.

25 Apr

               Image Today was my birthday.  I will be honest – I am not a huge fan of my birthday. I think I used to be, back when I was a kid and birthdays were fun and my mom threw these wonderfully creative parties for me. But then, I got older, and I moved away, and I wasn’t able to be with my family on my birthdays. I’d develop expectations for the great things that I thought were going to happen on my birthday, and not only did these things not happen, but a lot of the times, really bad things happened. Like one year, my boyfriend broke up with me. Another year, a few friends were murdered (yes, like I said, really, really bad).  The next year, the guy I was dating got a fellowship and basically told me “see ya later, girl!” on my birthday. I think it might be accurate to say that for a year or two after that, I not only did not like my birthday, but I actively dreaded it.

                I suppose it doesn’t help that I also use my birthday as a time to go back through my year and pick out everything that I didn’t do right or that I didn’t do, period, like get a short story published, or finish a novel, or lose ten pounds, or start dating a nice guy. And this is stupid, yeah, but I bet I’m not the only person who does this. And actually, I’d say a little bit of this might be productive, but not to the level that I do it.

                The not getting a thing published is probably the most frustrating part, because I beat myself up for not only not writing good enough stuff, but also for not sending enough stuff out, never mind that I work full time and generally am doing about all that I can do.

                This year, I actually feel like I’ve done a lot. I’ve had a few major successes at work, I’ve made a lot of great friends and gotten closer to old ones, I’ve visited another country, I’ve written (what I think are) a few good stories and essays, I’ve gotten involved in music again with my church choir, and I’ve started volunteering. The only thing that it seems that I haven’t done is learned to be really happy with all of this and actually accept that I deserve some of this stuff and to cut myself some slack. That, I’d say would be a completely worthwhile skill to have, and not just that, but I think it’s one that I really need.

                So maybe that will be my goal for next year. And I sure hope it works out a lot better than my blog post a year goal.

Lilacs Out of the Dead Land

24 Apr

I’ve been thinking a lot about trash lately. The first time I really thought about trash was when I went to see Terra Blight, a documentary about e-waste. This documentary isn’t available online, however, this Frontline documentary, which I admittedly have not yet watched but plan to, is. If it is anything like Terra Blight, you’ll see children in Africa running around miles and miles of computers and TVs and other broken or “outdated” electronics. The children collect the scraps that they can sell, the copper and the iron, the hard drives. It isn’t safe – the computers leak chemicals that destroy the land, the kids invariably get cut on the glass from broken computer monitors, and the chemicals get into those cuts – and it is heartbreaking. I’d been thinking about buying a flat screen TV, and then, I saw this movie. I think I can handle life with the “old school” TV I have.

About a month later, I read Katherine Boo’s fantastic book that also details life in a literal dump, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. This book, which earned the Pulitzer last year for non-fiction, is set in India, in a dump outside the Bombay airport. Here, much like in the slum in Ghana, an economy has sprung up around collecting and salvaging trash. The slum dwellers are poor, and they are outcasts. Few have hope of a real education, and though they all dream for their children to get out of the trash business, it’s hard to see a way out.

This narrative gets repeated in a movie I started watching earlier today, Waste Land, which tells the story of an artist from Brazil who makes art from trash.  The artist, Vik Muniz, goes into a dump outside of Rio and gets to know several garbage pickers, and with them, he creates art out of the trash they collect. His goal, he says, is to literally transform the trash into art, and through that art raise money for the trash collectors. The trash collectors work with him to create the art – it isn’t a charity effort – it’s a group installation.

I like that idea. I like that Muniz is fascinated by the magic that happens when one thing transforms into another. It happens in a literal way when he and the garbage pickers make art from trash, but it also happens in the way that the audience views the garbage pickers. They don’t become people on Save the Children commercials – they are transformed into something real. And this, to me, is something that also happens in Behind the Beautiful Forevers,- which you really must read – wherein Katherine Boo tells a story – a true story, but  a story – and makes the people real. Continuing with my theme from an earlier blog entry this week, again, art becomes something incredible useful and beautiful.

When I googled “Waste Land” that perennially misquoted T.S. Eliot poem came up. (I am perhaps one of the worst misquote offenders, I should add, using “April is the cruelest month” to complain about the fact that each April means I owe the city my car taxes, and that it also means I get one year older). Anyway, on this re-reading, the section that really stuck with me was in the beginning (ok, I only read “The Burial of the Dead” before reminding myself I did my penance with this poem in undergrad). Anyway, here is the section:

 

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

 

And that, I think, could not have been more prescient. 

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I encountered this lovely lady, a true treasure from trash at Butch Anthony’s Doo Nanny, where everything “trash” becomes treasure, and sometimes vice versa, in the best way.

Totally Fracked

23 Apr

            I’ve been watching the movie Gasland off and on for the past day and a half, and at first, I was going to write a post about how pissed off I was. And then I thought I’d write a post where I made fun of myself for being such a damn liberal idealist with my liberal guilt and my liberal haircut etc. But then, I got to a scene that made me so pissed off again, and I remembered why I was a liberal idealist to begin with. In this particular scene, a gas company exec basically tells the director that fracking is the gas company’s problem, and not anyone else’s. “You get to walk away from this,” he says to the director. This made me mad for a few reasons, particularly that none of us get to “walk away” from fracking, because it is in the freaking/fracking air.

            So Gasland, if you haven’t seen it, is a really great documentary by a guy from an area affected by fracking in Pennsylvania. A fracking company is trying to lease his land for drilling, and they’ve already been leasing lands and setting up shop in the area. There have been stories of some pretty bad business going down with the fracking – for instance, some of the folks in a nearby town can set their drinking water on fire (drinking water is not supposed to be flammable, fyi). So, the director travels cross-country, investigating places that have been all fracked up. It isn’t good. There’s more water that gets set on fire, more people getting sick (tumors, headaches, asthma, you name it), more bad smells, and more animals losing their hair. It’s sad, it’s scary, and it’s real.

            Ok – so as soon as I finished writing that, I did just a little bit of research via Popular Mechanics and the New York Times, and determined that while a lot of what was in Gasland was indeed accurate, some of it may have been a bit inaccurate, notably, the methane getting into wells, though there is some – ok – a lot of – debate about that. As I should have known, the truth is always more complicated than it seems.

            In GasLand, the director focuses on water contamination. Recent research has suggested that water contamination isn’t as much the problem as the greenhouse gases that are released during the progress. In the NYT article above, the authors point out that fracking releases less greenhouse gases than coal does, which to me was a little bit like saying that eating two big macs a day is worse than eating one big mac a day – it’s the lesser of two evils.

I do like that the authors of the NYT article mention that fracking shouldn’t be used in place of developing “cleaner, non-carbon, energy sources without decreasing reliance on coal.            And this is maybe what gets me the most pissed off: with the exception of some climate change wackos (like this woman my mom knows who purposefully leaves her light on during those “go dark for an hour”  times just to make “a stand”), we know that climate change is happening. We know that we should be reducing our consumption of natural gasses, that we should be consuming less in general, and that we should be trying our damndest to produce clean energy. And yet, many of us (myself included) don’t do all that we can do, because the effects aren’t upon us yet.

            We just keep kicking that can down the road, and that is what scares me the most.

Image*I did want to include a picture of one positive thing: this is from Earth University in Costa Rica, where I spent some time this summer with our honors students. They are doing some great things with sustainable farming and development. You should check them out. I think I’ll post about that tomorrow. And it won’t be a rant…

Love Into the World

21 Apr

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One time, a dear friend of mine went out with a guy who was kind of a jerk. He was having a rough patch, and she was trying to help him through it because she is a sweet person. At the end of what was to be their final date, she told him that she understood what it was like to be frustrated with life – that she was a poet, and it could be very hard to handle working and creating art that you knew might not ever get out into the world (or something along those lines). This rake of a gent replied that yes, poetry was pretty pretentious and useless, wasn’t it? She walked out on him, and bully for her, I say. (I’d like to add to that he is a musician…)

I think about that a lot – the potential uselessness of what I’m doing. I’ve not yet been published, and I don’t know if I ever will. It gets frustrating, particularly when I feel like I have things worth saying. It is also frustrating for me to justify not only to other people but also to myself why I do what I do – that is, spend hours alone indulging in writing that may never see the light and that may actually be pretty stupid, when I could be out doing other things, like I don’t know, working to save humanity (ha) or trying to meet a guy (ha. ha. ha!)

But then in church today, our fantastic preacher found a way to address both the Boston Marathon Bombing and Earth Day. He did this by sharing a few poems that addressed not only the beauty of the world, but the peace that we can find in the beauty of the world. One of them, The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry can be found here, while the other, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, can be found here.

After I heard those poems, I couldn’t help but think about how poetry – and art, in general – is so much the opposite of pretentious and useless. Rather than be pretentious, if done right, poetry is the most accessible medium, bridging people from different experiences and cultures, uniting them by rhythm and image and language. Rather than being useless, poetry can make sense of the things that are difficult for us to understand. Take this poem about lynching, by my friend Ansel Elkins, who recently won an NEA grant, or the poem “The Starfish” by my friend Stefanie Silva.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that in working on my writing, I’ve lost track of the true, higher purpose of writing (and art), a purpose that was illuminated to me through another peace of art, my favorite childhood book, Harriet the Spy, in which Ole Golly asserts that writing “is to bring love into the world.” 

I think I lost that idea in the competitive pressure cooker that was the MFA program, as well as through the process of living and getting mad at people and really wanting to “get them in memoir” (ok, now that I say that out loud, it sounds like something a crazy person might say). And maybe that works for some people, but so far, it isn’t working for me. Maybe  if I can take any good out of this week, it can be the realization that love, after all, is the highest form of art.  

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