Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Working on a Dream

I’ve never had a good sound system. I played piano for nine years, quit, and now can’t tell a minor from a major third interval. My pitch was okay when I sang every day in high school—it’s flat now. And, I haven’t thought of myself as a poet since I started reading poetry in college.

But I can sometimes know a brilliant album when I see one, because despite all my limitations, I’m an artist, and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream is a gift to us all. Yes, it has the E Street Band. Yes, it was mixed by an industry guru, produced by predictably powerful and talented people, etc. etc. The design of the booklet is profoundly beautiful.

But listen: the deeply political, blatant rage and community strife that appeared on the Rising and matured on Magic has become the stuff of fantasy, legend, and myth on Working on a Dream. A new beast has come to live with us—and her plumage is formidable.

Firstly: “Working on a Dream” as an album title is perfect for our current political situation. It’s perfect for our current situation in the arts. It’s perfect for anyone who has a notion that things could change for the better in their own life or in their neighborhood or their world. Bruce is saying: dreams don’t just happen to you in your sleep—you’ve got to get your hands dirty to make them happen. He’s always been a master at that message and we’re lucky he’s still at it.

But it gets more complicated. The very first song on the album is nearly 8 minutes long, an epic, a story about a man named Outlaw Pete who battles his own destiny. Think old Western, think Star Wars (Annakin), think Odyssey. The first song. The one that is supposed to draw audiences in. What audacity and commitment to artistry it is for Bruce to put a song that will never be a radio hit at the helm. Outlaw Pete is a man who is born into his legacy and then tries to change it—but the world around him tells him it’s impossible. There’s a wailing harmonica solo that was taken directly from one of the spaghetti westerns, so Max Hodes (who has just moved from Boston to LA! Huzzah!) says, and the refrain “I’m Outlaw Pete/ Can you hear me?” moves from comic assertion of identity (he’s a baby in diapers robbing a bank) to tragic plea for connection (he’s a father about to abandon his family in a forced return to violence) to blatantly philosophical question of origin (he’s being addressed by his daughter in the eternal return).

This album has love songs: to a lover, to the world, to music, to art in general, to Life Itself. This album has a working-class anthem to the distinct and imperceptible-to-the-masses beauty of a supermarket queen, a carnival tribute to the late Danny Federici, a blues number with one of my favorite blues lyrics: “I had my good eye to the dark and my blind eye to the sun.” It’s a series of comedies, parodies, tragedies, and sweeping images of us all driving forward, like a freight train, motion without predestination, possibility embodied, like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit just before he seals his fate with his gun. We, on the other hand, might just get redeemed.

While Magic was more obviously political, and righteously angry, Working on a Dream offers us a trip into the stratosphere of Bruce’s narrative world, and it’s there we find hopes for community living, honest love, and inspired legacy. He’s always had a humility about the last piece, but it’s undeniable. Just as Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s narrator finds himself inspired to action against colonialism after the death of his activist second wife (Book 3 of the Buru Quartet), Bruce’s narrative character in “What Love Can Do” says:

When the bed you lie on is nails and rust
And the love you’ve given’s turned to ashes and dust
When the hope you’ve gathered’s drifted to the wind
And it’s you and I my friend
You and I now friend

Here our memory lay corrupted and our city lay dry
Let me make this vow to you
Here where it’s blood for blood and an eye for an eye
Let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do

I’ve got a lot of listening and talking to do. There’s no substitute for continued attention on a piece of art. But I wanted to make plain, on the evening of its first play, that Working on a Dream is already one of the fantastic additions to my world, my life, my work, my community, my self. I cried, wept, was moved by this album—not just because I feel somehow “connected” to the characters described, which happened, but because of the deep bolstering it offered to all of us who are, every day, swinging a hammer and working on the Dream.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bringing Sexy Back

Vanessa as Bella Sapphire, burlesque baby.

Last weekend I was standing outside Louis’s apartment complex wearing a short skirt, hollering and laughing into the phone, pacing on the grass in my boots, holding a bunch of red tulips under my arm when a student I taught at Emerson drove out from the parking lot. I was on the phone, he was on his way somewhere, and so all we exchanged were quick, surprised hello’s. He emailed me. I responded. Then we ran into each other at the gym, and I hopped off the treadmill to chat with him about a few great films we’d seen, some ideas for exploring LA on a budget, and the problem of becoming an artist in a recession economy.

Emerson has a satellite program in LA, and they house their students in the apartment complex where Louis has lived since September. I knew it was possible that I’d see a former student there, but it hadn’t happened yet.

On its own, this coincidence is not extreme. However, it got me thinking about something Dr. Stephanie Hammer at UCR discusses in her classes, which is the issue of scholarship being a disembodied activity. She routinely has her students get up from their seats. She gives them projects that ask them to use sensory awareness far more than other creative writing teachers I’ve experienced. She dresses in colorful, well-fitting, comfortable clothes, and moves around—walking, gesturing, throwing her head back to laugh—while she talks. She’s concerned that once you divorce the body from the work of reading and writing, you become less creative. I think she’s right, and I also think she’s addressing an important myth that’s perpetuated by the metaphor of the ivory tower: that scholars don’t need to roll around and get dirty. And if they do, they’re immediately less serious intellectually.

Running into a former student in (a) a short skirt that I wouldn’t have worn to teach in three years ago and (b) spandex pants and a sports bra, without makeup and sweating, brought into sudden awareness my old sense of conservatism about my role as a teacher. I had one semester in 2006 where I experimented with wearing “cuter” outfits—remember this was in Boston, so by my LA standards they were still pretty boring—and it seemed to make little difference in the sense that I still got the same number of comments in my evaluations about being pretty as when I wore leather flats and bulky sweaters the semester before. At the time, I thought that students who commented on my looks were distracted by them, and that meant it was my job to downplay or deemphasize my body and my face. In the same wrong-headed anxiety about students thinking I was sexy, and therefore not taking me seriously, I rarely talked in the classroom about my other career as a dancer—even though it was and is easy to find me on the internet as a Dame in the Toldeo Show, as a burlesquer with the Babes in Boinkland, an entertainer with the Siagel DJ company, as a hula girl for Waitiki, etc.

It wasn’t until my last semester before moving back to California that I really kicked through those vestiges of Christian guilt and intellectual insecurity that kept me from being joyfully embodied in the classroom. And even then, I had about 65% of the vitality and energy I have now, due to all kinds of factors like the Boston winters, diet, stress, lack of community, and so on.

It was a long-borne exhaustion that caused my body to hibernate in the classroom to begin with. Remember that I grew up a Christian, and although I was always feisty when it came to the denial of the body inherent to that system, I was surrounded by it. When I was 17, I nearly got kicked out of Christian summer camp because I challenged the rules about bikinis. I was told that my wearing a bikini was actually a mean, selfish thing to do, as it made life harder for my Christian brothers, who were busying themselves with resisting “temptation.” I thought the counselors were full of crap, of course, and I argued for my right to bare the six inches of belly skin so carefully chosen to be considered titillating by our culture, but still, I felt I’d landed on an alien planet. Years later, I experienced clashes with school administrators who were concerned that my work as a go-go dancer, were parents to find out, was an “inappropriate” representation of their school. I’ve had people in the publishing industry tell me I shouldn’t talk about or write about sex or the body as much if I want to be published “seriously.” I became a classroom instructor as a graduate student, already worried about this issue of being taken seriously as a thinker, and feeling simultaneously defiant, certain that I personally and my chosen field of inquiry deserved some elusive combination of respect AND excitement. Among other, more helpful and pertinent evaluations, I had a student in my first semester who wrote that he hated my class but got up at 8am because it was worth it to look at me. This discouraged me, even as it fed sugar to my ego.

I was convinced that there was no way I could be considered attractive, could move around and feel my body, could dress feminine, and still be seen as a scholar. I was certain that a woman who appears joyfully, sensually embodied is nearly always fighting to be heard above the unconscious din her looks/sexiness create. I separated my life into halves: life of the mind, life of the body—and although it pained me and seemed tragic, I couldn’t figure a way to integrate them. I invented compensatory behaviors that attached self-conscious irony to my sexuality in order to make it more palatable to insecure intellectuals on the one hand, and I rarely talked about my writing or my reading with the dancers I knew, on the other. Still, I was fighting. I posed nude for the cover of Boink: The Book, my body covered by a podium as I faced a classroom of nude students—what a hilarious expression of my conundrum that job was! I read Oscar Wilde and knew I was making a consistent mistake. (Picture is me invoking his spirit at his grave in Paris.) I got sick of it. I got lonely. I came back to California, knowing that this disintegration was a major factor in what made me so exhausted in Boston, but still unconvinced that I could fix it, because it seemed like an expression of such a large-scale societal problem.

And then Stephanie talked about the issue directly in the classroom, and I felt like a dunce. Of course I’ll be writing about sex, dance, the body. Of course I’ll wear some heels next time I teach. Of course these things can go hand in hand with a tightly articulated critical evaluation of a difficult text. None of them are separate—both fishnets and great ideas get me hot. An Artist-Scholar can make her own rules. The societal problem can only be helped by my constant presence in the body simultaneously with the intellectual work. It was a long time coming, but what a freedom. I’m not afraid of being a fringe writer, based on the stories I think need to be told—it’s not acceptable for artists or scholars to think about being popular when they are pursuing the creation of a project. And so, the era of my concern about appearing inappropriately seductive, simply by being embodied in a context that contraindicates it, which is actually a concern about being dismissed by intellectuals and students, has finally ended.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Everything Under the Sun

One of the juiciest morsels to fall into my life from the tree of knowledge (i.e. Anthony's PhD program in Comp Lit at UCR) is the Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Four novels: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. I've read the first two, and they ravished me--in the car, at the laundromat, sitting upright at the Coffee Depot, draped on a red couch, snuggled in my bed, waiting in line at the bank, everywhere. I haven't loved a novel this much for a very, very long time. This is what I'm always wanting, I keep saying to myself, someone who writes richly, thinks expansively, argues left, loves and mourns. He's a Marxist, an artist, a relentless criticizer of racism, sexism, colonialism. Oh the joy of meeting female characters with strength and complexity! The delight of a "hero" who is self-critical and uncomfortable with his own lack of courage, then overcomes!

Among the multitude of avenues to wander through in rapturous analysis, one that captures me now is illustrated in the final scene of Child of All Nations. The two main characters of the novels, Nyai Ontosoroh and her son-in-law Minke (Native Javanese, and lowest in the social hierarchy despite their education and wealth) are facing a Dutch officer, Maurits, who is related to them through shameful bloodlines--his late father bought Nyai Ontosoroh to be his concubine, then Maurits took posession of Minke's wife Annelies (Maurits' half-sister) in a court trial that denied the validity of Minke and Annelies's Islamic wedding. Annelies died shortly after Maurits took her to Holland, and now Maurits has returned to Nyai and Minke's home in Surabaya, Indonesia, to claim inheritance rights to their business and their property.

To prepare for the meeting, Nyai has asked her close friends, the French painter Jean-Marais and a Mixed-Blood journalist named Kommer, to stand with her and Minke in the confrontation. When they become involved in the conversation, Maurits tells Kommer "it's nothing to do with you."

Kommer's reply is:

"Everything that happens under the sun is the business of thinking people." He goes on to say that "If one's feelings of humanity are offended, everyone with feeling will also be offended, except for people who are mad and those with truly criminal mentalities, even though they may be university graduates."

And this is the subtle knife with which Pramoedya slices through to another world. In the first two novels, Minke is gradually transformed from a Dutch-loving Native student with a colonized mind to a sickened public figure reluctantly fighting for his own constantly changing sense of justice for Javanese people. I know that the transformation continues, that he himself becomes less a focus of books 3 and 4 as the grander fight for Indonesian independence occurs. (Oh my stars I can't wait to read them.) What is so profoundly, deftly done in books 1 and 2 is the call to awakening--the instillation of social responsibility in a character who had been previously inculcated by European notions of privacy, acceptance of status quo, and fundamentally, the impotence of the individual in the face of systemic prejudice.

In This Earth of Mankind, Minke makes the decision to marry Annelies amidst a growing conflict with his school, his job, his cultural position as a Native who writes in Dutch, an outsider to the European system who is using their own "scientific" methods to question their authority. However, his greatest concern is his love for Annelies, and so when he decides to marry her, he states that "the world and my heart greeted each other in peace." This is his first and last moment of peace in 700 pages--and one of the only decisions he makes without desperate self-doubt. He does not yet know his own people, or the extent of the corruption that structures daily life in Indonesia; however, the marriage is a political act for a number of reasons. It is a most private affair, the desires of his heart, and yet, it is a community issue, and indeed a way of being in the world that he is choosing, hence, being able to greet the world.

In Child of All Nations, as Minke's understanding of the dire poverty, victimization, and brutality of the Dutch-Indies colonial system grows, he begins to see both himself and the Javanese as not the inherently inferior, "backwards" people who owe everything to the European masters, but as a shockingly passive collection of uneducated self-aggrandizers who allow themselves to be oppressed because of their delusional attachments to myths of past greatness. He writes: "With my inner eye I scattered my vision over my own surroundings. There was no movement at all. All Java was fast asleep, dreaming. And I was confused, angry, aware but impotent."

This complicates Kommer's assertion, in the sense that "all thinking people" at this point doesn't seem to include Minke's own people, the uneducated Javanese. This is why everyone he's close to (who are either Pure-blood, Mixed-blood, or part of a small class of educated Native "exceptions") urge Minke to speak for the rest of the Javanese, to learn about them and then help them.

This kind of "help," in the sense that it is a type of education and call to action, is much more difficult to imagine amongst people who already consider themselves educated, self-aware, autonomous, and entitled to choose their level of involvement in the affairs of others. What kind of American truly believes that Everything that happens under the sun, all instances of injustice, is their business? We get involved in foreign conflicts for capitalist reasons, framed as heroism, then ignore other, obvious travesties. At home, a domestic violence call from a bystander won't be addressed by the police unless you are a visual witness to a beating. Come on. Most people won't get involved at all, let alone call the police, and even when they do, nothing happens? The sheer volume of bureaucratic difficulty facing someone like Minke, under a colonial government, exponentially trumps any problems anyone here might face, and we are still passive. In fact we are passive, in part, because for over 230 years things have only occasionally ever been bad enough for us to get righteously angry--and our cultural memory is so short we feel the Civil War, even the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Vietnam, and so on, were actions only necessary in the distant past. (I'm anxiously awaiting the Obama era, the repeal of Prop 8, all the other potential actions that might signal a real call to awareness and responsibility in our country. But I won't be really impressed until we're embarrassed about the fact that we needed a Gay Rights movement the way we are about Civil Rights, until our medicine is socialized, until all drugs are legal and labeled with "heroic honesty" per Gore Vidal.)

What Pramoedya offers next is yet another complication: capital itself, in the modern world, creates morality. This means that even if one becomes incensed at some instance of injustice, one might be still conforming to and cultivating capitalistic interests at the expense of humanity. For instance, our hyperactive imprisioning of people involved in non-violent crimes belies our greed, not our desire to improve the social station of the shoplifters or offer creative opportunity for marijuana smokers. Discovering a sense of justice that is not dictated by the interests of capital (via the Dutch) is the wrenchingly difficult process Minke goes through in This Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations. It's beautiful, confusing, devastating, hopeful, violent, and wrapped in batik and smelling of jasmine. Kommer is certain one can have a sense of justice that is rooted in a "feeling of humanity," and it is to this that Minke aspires. May it be so for us all.

Pramoedya is a hero. Read him.

Read a little more about Pramoedya in the NYT article on his death.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Year's Revolution

The problem with New Year's resolutions is that most people accept failure before they've even begun. People think of resolutions as ideals; and therefore are not too upset or guilty when they don't enact anything near to their stated desires. Resolutions have the same problems as freshman composition essay topics: too vague, inappropriate scope, sophomoric or dilettantish understanding of the field they purport to be part of.

For example. This year, at the stroke of midnight, I went running through the Oakwood apartment complex yelling and whooping in delight. Some people I didn't know opened their door and blew their noisemakers. "Resolutions now!" I yelled. What followed was a near-perfect failure of American thinking about so-called "self-improvement."

Girl #1: Uh...exercise more!
My interpretation: I'm really skinny but don't care that thinking I'm fat means I've got Los Angeles-induced body dysmorphia! I care more about getting attention for being thin than my health! I'm not really interested in reading about/asking someone with training what would be best for my body!
Guy #1: Work harder at work!
My interpretation: I was reluctant to enter the capitalist machinery when I graduated college, but I don't really think I have any other choice! I want people to think I'm industrious, because that's a value that seems to be regarded highly by everyone around me! Plus, I want a truck!
Girl #2: I, um, had one but I forgot it?
My interpretation: I don't want people to think I'm shallow, so I'll pretend I've been thinking about how to be a better person, but I also don't want people to think I'm snotty so I won't say anything that could indicate that I think I'm doing anything important!
Guy #2: Make more money!
My interpretation: I'm a drone! I actually bought into the lie that my worth as a human can be measured by my income! Plus, I want a truck!

Of course different interpretations are possible. Normally I would have slowed the whole thing down, asked them why they answered that way, and tried to engage them in a conversation about the values they were showing. But just the day before, I'd seen Soderbergh's 4-hour movie "Che," and I was filled with the despair and poignant resolve of so many people fighting so desperately for their right to eat, get medical care, go to school. So instead of my normal patient response, I gave all four of those 20-somethings a look of horror, pulled the door shut hard, and ran away screaming. Inappropriate, maybe. I wonder what happened in the few seconds post door-slamming--at worst, they shrugged and were unaffected. At best, one of them said, "Yeah, guys, we should really make some better resolutions."

But still, that's not enough. Still, one might think of resolutions as either (a) impossible to fulfill or (b) only good for practical matters like joining a gym. Not so!

Anthony and Lindsey were the first in my life to talk seriously with me about what a resolution could and should do. Now, we've banded together with some loved ones to create something called Project 2009. We've sent our resolutions out on a group email, and have committed to checking in about them once every three months, in addition to maintaining a more consistent level of contact about the ideas, texts, films, events, and people in our daily lives that add to our art, scholarship, and selves. We've decided to do radical friendship that involves staying honest with each other about our successess and failures over the year. The people in the group who are in relationships are putting forth resolutions for their coupledom, as well. The resolutions themselves are open for suggestions and revisions--and this means that none of us will get caught in a trap of impossibly vague goal-setting that dooms us to failure.

I've got three. One is a very detailed plan for my writing life that has certain requirements for sending out manuscripts. The next is a fundamental change in my relationship to food, in particular my fanatical and addictive sugar behavior, with practical plans for how to enact it. The last is to begin a yoga practice, and specifically to engage that practice in some way every day, be it five minutes of yogic breathing, an hour-long class, or any number of other ways/time durations.

The second and third are material changes to my daily life, yes, but they are also designed to actually change my self in major ways. I think of myself as disciplined and willful, but have always accepted a certain out-of-control behavior with food. I'd like to be free of the emotional behaviors I have with food. I'd like to enjoy and savor and love my health. This is a bigger issue than just enfocing certain diet ideas. The practice of yoga will help with both the discipline and the change in relationship to food, and also carve me a new path towards fearlessness! In the past few months certain baseline levels of anxiety I've historically tolerated in my life have become unacceptable. As it turns out, my physical responses to perceived threats of any kind--raised voices, roller coasters, it doesn't seem to matter the level of "real" threat--are often not only irrational, they're debilitating. I often can't think well in an argument. I can't pay attention to anything if I'm about to get on a roller coaster, I'm so beset by terror. Ironically, during the very few times that I've been in actual physical danger, my crisis management response has been total and powerful. I've physically defended myself against aggression, come to the aid of someone who was hurt, dealt with things like car accidents, and so on, without being riddled with panic. When I'm directing camp, I stride into difficult emotional situations all the damn day. So my ineffectiveness is somehow reserved for certain types of threatening situations. I'm going to think a lot about that in 2009, while I'm practicing all those yogic breaths.

I think it's crucial to think about self-change in a ritualized way. Too often I've seen people get excited about a new idea (take dance classes! learn to cook! lose 5 pounds! read more books!) and then put it down just as easily once they realize they'd have to restructure their time to make it "fit." I'm less interested in the problem of not-enough-time now than I ever have been. No one who makes enough money to live in a house/apartment and eat food everyday is being truly victimized by their time. The most important thing anyone can do is become excited about living in awareness of how they spend their time. Either you know how to do something new in a year, or you don't. Either you've humbled yourself enough to change your life, or you haven't. Either you've dealt with your trauma, or you've gotten stuck. These aren't simplistic dichotomies, they're a terrifyingly, exhiliratingly motivating way to think about becoming great.

Resolutions need to practically address both the tangible, skill-building goals like learning how to play guitar (find a teacher, practice a certain amount every week, etc.) and the more abstract goals of improving the self. This is the most difficult part: coming up with behaviors that will solidify new methods of being. New methods of being creative, performative, experimental, permeable, inquisitive, humble, and fearless.

I'm excited for 2009. Really, really excited.