Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New SARK book and Old Cowboy Song

Johnny Cash determined my life’s destiny in 1986. My father, then a senior editor at the San Francisco office of Harper and Row, was working with Cash on developing a book, and through some means of what I imagine was booze-induced networking, so popular for publishers in the 1980s, Dad landed backstage passes for Cash’s appearance at the Cow Palace in Oakland. 

I had been listening to the “Highwaymen” album, a collaboration among Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylen Jennings, and Willie Nelson, and had only just been allowed to move the needle on the player independently, since I tended to listen to the album front to back to front to back and Dad had gotten tired of having to reset the thing every twenty or so minutes. Endearingly devoted to me, my single, eligible father took me to the concert, instead of bringing a woman he could have certainly impressed into a second date or at least a one night stand.

The green room was actually white and Cash’s head was huge. So was his collar, which was cone-shaped, like the kind one sees on a dog after an invasive trip to the vet.
    I asked him what it was for.
    “Hairspray,” he said, and demonstrated by creating a dense cloud over his impressive pompadour, without soiling his starched white shirt. “So, Vanessa,” he said, now towering over me, the collar still standing at attention, “What song do you want to hear tonight?”
    I was not prepared for that question. I answered honestly. “I’d really like to hear ‘Jim I Wore a Tie Today.’”
    Johnny Cash chuckled with the kind of gravel in his throat that I thought God must have and he said, “Well now, honey, that’s a real sad song for such a little girl.”
    Indeed it was a cowboy’s funeral song. I told him I liked it. He agreed to play it, because that was as good a reason as any to play a sad song. I was validated somehow by this, and that is the year I started writing stories.

When I listen to it now, I make up all kinds of reasons why I might have liked “Jim I Wore a Tie Today.” They range from simple (it has a beautiful melody) to self-aggrandizing (I must have been emotionally precocious). The “real” reason is mostly lost except for a Proustian moment I have with this song lyric: "we did everything in the books, I guess/and a lot that they never thought up." The music lilts upward on an open chord progression that begs for resolution. But, it doesn’t get resolved. We never know what exactly these boys did together that made them so thoroughly inventive.

I wasn’t obsessed with cowboys, or the West, or even any of the Highwaymen as a pre-pubescent. So I have to conclude that I obsessed over “Jim I Wore a Tie Today” at least in part for this moment of opening, adventure, maybe even “badness,” that came through in the lament. There are things that even all the books haven't yet thought up, Cash was telling me. That astonishing reality comes through even in grief.

In 1986, I was overwhelmed with delight by what was in the books. I'd only been reading for three years. I was already two grades ahead of myself and started keeping a journal. That there could possibly be a frontier beyond the library, made of yet-un-thought material, made me feel something I struggle even now to articulate. I’m sure there’s a way to say it in German. Part thrill, part terror, part assurance. 

The first two are probably obvious: the grand scope of possibilities and the limited time people have to explore them before they die is thrilling and terrifying. The last feeling, of a kind of relaxed happiness that follows from the first two, is not obvious at all. In fact, many people I know and love do not share it with me. But it is something that I can access in yoga, in moments of relaxation, in moments of joy--an acceptance of the temporary and acknowledgment of the vast unknown territory just outside my current view. I learned it in part from years of reading SARK, and watching her navigate death, loss, change, success, surprise, and delight.

Tonight I talked to my Dad on the phone. He was chatting about a conference he just went to. He had more energy than me. Weirdly, this thought pushed up from my unconscious: he could have died on his way home from Nashville. I felt profoundly grateful that he hadn't. I realized, as I do every time someone dies or I think of someone dying, that I usually assume the people I love will live another day, and it's just not going to stay true forever. They may not stay healthy, they may not stay sane, they may not stay loving, they may not stay, period. I hate this. I also gravitate always towards people who are wiser than me in these areas. Apparently, I've been doing that since I was a small child.

SARK's new book, Glad No Matter What: Transforming Loss and Change into Gift and Opportunity is living in my bed right now. It's her 16th book, and an incredibly vulnerable, gorgeous tome full of tips for what she's dubbed "practical gladness." I'm so honored to be one of the featured portraits of Joy and Transformation at PlantSark.  The book is yet another window into this kind of joy/terror/assurance feeling that makes me feel happy to be a human being. 

I'd like to keep overturning the little narratives that I feel are so necessary to my life--perfectionism, in particular, is an important one lately. There are myriad ways to feel differently than we seem to think we must feel. I'm happily indebted to the cowboys and SARKs and blues singers and writers who remind me.  

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dragon, Pirate, Mountain, Dust

Burning Man 2010: dragon tail, pirate flag, mountains, and dust. There's a LOT going on here.
As a college freshman, I studied ancient Greek and Roman humanities at Reed. One of the assignments I remember being insulted by, and one of the only assignments I was ever insulted by, and also one of the only assignments I remember, was a sort of scavenger-hunt we were supposed to perform over the course of a week. The point was to collect as many references to ancient Greek gods and goddesses, characters from the Iliad, pieces of architecture that resembled columns of the Parthenon, and so on, that we could find in our daily lives. I was insulted by this assignment because it seemed like something I might have had to do in high school, had I gone to an okay high school instead of a desperately under-funded Los Angeles Unified school. The point is, I didn't feel like carrying my little list around everywhere and jotting down things like: "Goodyear tires logo: Hermes winged foot." I did do it, of course, because I am what's known as a "good student."

And what happened was that I found so many references to ancient Greece in my daily life I felt a little scared. I felt scared knowing that I had just been cruising through a visual media culture that made references I didn't know before, because that meant that the academic culture I was entering was going to make a thousand times more. And of course, it did.

Skip ahead some years later, to a very similar feeling that happened when I read Nabokov's Lolita for the first time. I read the novel very soon after I'd been first introduced to Derrida, and there was a sort of dizzying effect to Nabokov's text as I felt I could fall inside each page, and this was a physical sensation that never stopped after I taught the book 8 times, because Derrida had told me I was already bleeding in through the spaces between the words.

I am back in grad school, attending seminars with extremely smart abstract thinkers, finding myself awash in visual imagery and idiosyncratic connections that sometimes enhance the discourse and at other times make it jumbled and clunky. Tonight I watched a Miyazaki film called "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" for a class I'm taking on anime--and really, the way anime can be seen as a portal to a new relation to technology a la Heidegger. And I was heartened by the fact that someone out there has a brain that moves in lateral, brightly colored directions like mine.

If that meant nothing to you, know this: I cried many times during the film, as connections came slamming through me: this is America, this is the global political body, this is the demonized dream of environmentalism, this is the problem of the ivory tower, this is Anthony, this is my old cat Boots and my new adopted cat Bembo, this is me, this is the unbelievably beautiful piece of visual art that somehow got enough people and money behind it to get MADE. And I fell into the movie in the same way I fall into a page. And the depth of these connections, the allusions I felt moving backward (the film was made in 1984, but visually seemed to reference Burning Man 2010 and Star Wars: the Clone Wars), the sheer weight of connectivity I don't understand because I haven't, still haven't read enough books or seen enough film was almost too much.

I know that for some people, in fact, it IS too much. They give up and watch TV without thinking about what that TV might be referencing. They give up and do all kinds of things, with the general theme of ignorance, indifference, or disinterest. This is the condition that most troubles people who worry about "the postmodern." But for me, those glimpses into the rampant allusive-ness of the world are like a drug. I want to see more. I want to trace them. I don't pretend I'll find origins, really, but I want to find swarms and packs and pockets and concentric circles of connection. I want to peel off and paste on layer after layer of the collage.

At the Getty last weekend for my Mom's birthday, I looked at ancient Greek art that I'd studied at some point at Reed. I saw a bust I recognized from a book cover. I read and remembered, vaguely, certain customs, names of gods and goddesses, and as we strolled out into the garden, I tried to figure out why the Koi in the pond "worked" with everything else. Pure aesthetics? Some reference in Ovid? Some cultural exchange between the Greeks and elsewhere that I don't know about? The questions are pleasurable. They're worthwhile. They feel like practicing piano or going for a run--I may not get an instant return on this hour, but if I keep it up, someday I'll have a moment when that little "click" will turn over, that flush of recognition, and I'll grab the arm of the person I'm with and crazily try to explain it. Eventually, one day, I'll get a piece memorized, I'll notice a new shapeliness to my calves, I'll read something new and feel I can love it more because I understand that it is a piece of homage to another book I already love.

I'm pretty sure I'm not arguing art for art's sake, although it may seem that way. What ultimately drives this desire and pleasure is a humanist passion: the more connectivity I can discuss, the more I can show, the more others can feel, the less distanced and dehumanized and disembodied we will be together. I actually believe this is possible, as a life-praxis, not just an academic exercise.

The biggest barrier to it is the ego. Wanting to feel like I already know what someone is going to say or show to me. Wanting to feel that triumph in argument, wanting to above all not lose face in front of people whose admiration I crave. When I am able to stop seeing through the ego-lens, I don't become a relativist or a confused little baby lost in the fog. I become even more convinced that creative moments of connection, collaboration, and realization of creative impulse is the way out. The way through, the way in, the way toward a moment in which the Dragon (spirit-body), the Pirate (the people's power to resist and organize), the Mountain (wisdom), and the Dust (the everyday made extraordinary) not only coexist in a lucky photo, but ARE together in my body and my body of work.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

...And We're Back!

What happened here? 
I'll tell you what. I went to Burning Man, I turned 31, I started a PhD program in Comparative Literature at UC Riverside, and my novel came out.

That's right, folks. Remember a few months ago when I was writing
about how I think self-publishing is a potential vanguard movement for fiction writers? Well, click here and visit A Crack in Everything at I hope you're inspired to support me when you do.

If you live anywhere near LA, come join me at the book events!

I've been going a little crazy reading heavy lit theory for many hours of the day, and then spending my "free time" trying to do marketing. I've designed purple underwear with "There is A Crack in Everything" printed on the butt. I've made custom condoms with the phrase "Even though there's A Crack in Everything" printed on them. (The novel is about a sex educator). I've bought a huge mounted poster of the cover to set in an easel at events. It's nuts, really, how much time, money, and energy can go into a project like this--I could be promoting full time, if I wanted to. Instead, I'm going to cut and paste the back cover copy of the book here and then write about the problem of "autobiographical fiction."

So here's what the back of the book says: 

Twenty-five-year-old Tamina is a sharp-witted Jersey girl living in Hollywood with a near-phobic response to mismatching colors, an addiction to pedicures, and a hectic job teaching comprehensive sex education to urban youth. Suffering the consequences of a violent assault, Tam looks for relief in romance and LA's underground erotic entertainment scene. However, when Tam's young attacker unexpectedly resurfaces among a crowd of drag queens, porn stars, and musicians, Tam finally must make real choices. Fear or confrontation. Cynicism or curiosity. Silence or honesty. It would be surreal, if it wasn't LA.

Nearly everyone who's read the novel so far has wondered, "How much of Tamina is you?" and I'd like to answer this question once and for all.

Some. Some of her is me. Most of her is not me.

The truth is, I had a lot more in common with Tamina, in temperament, when I began the book. Her politics are my politics. Her experiences are not really my experiences. Her life is fiction. Her emotional problems resonate with me, and that's why I wrote them. Beginning six years ago.

Tamina is stressed out. She's anxious a lot of the time. She has a hard time telling people the abject honest truth about how she feels because she's afraid of being rejected. I used to feel this way a lot more often than I do now. It was freeing to me to write this character, because once I'd exposed some of these emotional realities I was more able to address them. Granted, they haven't gone away. But I don't worry as much about how people are perceiving me, and I would like to thank Tamina for that. She took some of the burden from me, I think.

In addition, this is a sexy novel--there's a very erotic scene about 2/3 of the way through, in addition to sexual tension between many of the characters, and I've already been fielding questions about whether the sex scene came from my imagination or my experience. So I'll answer that question, too. Both.

I think that Americans are obsessed with historicity, memoir, and "what really happened." I'm bored by the constant pursuit of an objective past truth or a pure memory, when it comes to literature. I believe that the desire to figure out the exact inspiration for any piece of fiction is a deadly moment--it's a way to kill the creative potential in reading. It's a way to fix a book in a particular point, instead of allowing it a spinning, fluid, expansive life of inspiring people. Sometimes authors have fantastically exciting stories about the origin of a book. But often the reading of a book is a truly creative act on the part of the reader, and too much interference from an author can be restrictive, I think.

I'm actually lucky that I'm self-publishing in an age when authors have to be visible. I'm young, I'm blonde, and I'm extroverted. There was a time when those things would not matter nearly as much as they do now. If I were shy this whole business would be more stressful than an MRI for a claustrophobic.

So I rumble along, trying to figure out the machinery of promotion. I try not to be too insanely attached to any particular outcome for A Crack in Everything, and just be grateful that its got a physical form. Because holding it in my hands, after all this time, is a pleasure of nearly transcendent character.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thank You, Hefner. We'll Take It From Here.

Brigitte Berman's new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel, deserves attention. Read this great interview at the for more background on the process of the film and its conclusions. Go see it if you're interested in sex, law, social justice, censorship, publishing, and/or sexy girls.

On the movie's opening night, July 30th, I went with Linz and her mom Debbie to the premiere at LA's Nuart Theater. Both Hefner and director Berman were in attendance, and they did a brief Q&A after the film.

As inspiring as the film was, the way Hefner has had to live on the defensive his whole life made me sad.

At this point, he's no longer defending himself against the obvious enemies he had in the 60s. Then, it was the conservative Christians, the censors, the people who were out-and-out afraid of crass depictions of sexuality. That the feminists of the time (Susan Brownmiller, and Gloria Steinem, famously) also vilified him is fascinating, since he thought he was working on the same project they were.

But it's even more complex now. The people who scoff at Hefner are people my age, who know little to nothing about his heroism of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and only see the caricature of male sexuality he's become. They don't care about the way he flouted racist convention, and in some cases actual law, to have black performers on his show and in his clubs. They don't care that he published Charles Beaumont's "The Crooked Man," a short story that questioned homophobia directly, when no one else would. He said during the Q&A that he thinks most people nowadays don't acknowledge "the other half" of his life.

The implication here is heavy: one half of his life is women/sex/silliness/parties and the other half is intensely focused intellectual, creative, activist work. Much like the way they were presented in Playboy, Hef thinks of the naked girls as a very separate experience from the writing.

This is such a puzzle to me. On the one hand, it seems like he should have the right to be a sexual adolescent, to love big boobies and blondes, and spend his time on that. He's a grown man with consenting women, after all. On the other hand, I agree with the criticism that Playboy became, in some very important ways, a dictator of sexual taste, and that it presents a limited view of what is sexy. What's clear from the film is that this restricted taste that has become so ubiquitous is actually Hef's. It doesn't seem as though he had a mission to tell all Americans what they "should" like, in fact. It seems as though he was a brilliant business man who happened to know exactly what HE liked. That Americans are sheep, media consumers, and easily told what their preferences should be based on what they see around them, is their own fault.

Someone with Hugh Hefner's acumen for business and a different aesthetic might have changed the course of American sexuality. Maybe. Or maybe Hef's desire for a certain hour-glass gal is just so mainstream because it is also a basic biological imperative the way symmetry in the face seems to be in cross-cultural studies of beauty. Certainly a particular waist-to-hip ratio (.7) has been theorized as a beauty ideal in many cultures. If Hef was just tapping into some heterosexual evolutionary biology, what exactly could the feminists expect?

What's beautiful about Hef's current incarnation as an 84-year-old business tyrant (he's buying the magazine back from stockholders to, one imagines, exert some more creative control), strangely self-effacing lover (see a recent LA Weekly cover story by Dennis Romero), and general eccentric is that he still seems happily committed to being authentic--he really does exactly what he wants to do, no matter what. This I respect I great deal. I don't share my generation's disdain for the grandfather-aged patriarch of The Girls Next Door, because the sheer volume of good he's done simply outweighs the potential done by his perpetuation of certain boring sexual aesthetics. 

It's up to us to derail those aesthetics, offer alternatives in media, and so on. What is also up to us, and seems to be the next big project that Hef may never attempt, is to do real integration of the "two halves"--to lift the barrier between sex and intellect. They existed side-by-side in early Playboy, but they didn't exist as integrated whole. This is the ideal that excites me most: not just a culture that has stopped oppressing sexual expressiveness, but a culture that has no problem with sex and sexuality entering the ivory tower. 

So overall I think we should see Hef as we see the early feminists or civil rights activists. We can never forget what they accomplished. We wouldn't even be able to think the thoughts we think now without them. But we can't pretend that the important fights have all been won, or we will be just a new generation of culture-slaves. There's always a new front for revolutionary thinking.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cute Girls in Boys' Town

I’ve never before been mistaken for a television journalist. I’ve been mistaken for an aspiring actress, mostly, and occasionally for someone’s old girlfriend. I’ve been mistaken for a normal blonde. When mingling with a litter of breezy sexy casual late-twenties hot girls, I could be mistaken for one of them.

Those hot girls are the people currently running the film publicity scene, which means underneath their Los Angeles chic sunhats buzz the brains of a fantastically powerful marketing machine. I like to think that people mistook me for one of them because I am both cute and somehow look smart, even when I’m just standing around shielding myself from the sun.

The Other Guys, a new comedy from Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (previous team-ups: Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers), was the subject of scrutiny on that bright LA day.  I shadowed Ted Chen from NBC, a news man of fifteen years who takes entertainment industry assignments when he actually wants to watch the film/go to the party/talk to the artists. The Other Guys opened August 6th in the U.S., and will open in the fall in most other countries. It’s a spoof of “buddy-cop” films like Lethal Weapon, and it ends up being a send-up of movie-making in general. Someone else can write a review. I’ll take you on the briefly thrilling journey to the publicity event.

Ted Chen and I arrived at the Marriott Hotel, where the press junket was supposedly occurring, at his appointed time. We were ushered through a labyrinthian series of hallways and elevators to the adjacent Ritz Carlton. The junket was actually set up at the Ritz Carlton rooftop pool, so the cameras could capture a sparkling skyline behind stars Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, and Eva Mendes. Never mind that the movie is set in New York. An LA skyline serves as symbolic stand-in cityscape for anyplace, we all know that.

“Who are all these women?” I asked Ted, nodding my head toward a knot of particularly well-accessorized ladies in shiny sandals and jersey tops.

“They’re like me,” he said. “They’re doing the interviews. Some of them are publicists.”

I discovered my prejudice: these people looked like they should be interns, still.

Ted laughed. “I guess I’m kind of a fossil here,” he said, looking around. (He’s not.) “I don’t do entertainment reporting that often. It really is run by pretty women.”

We ate New York-themed food in a luxurious Ritz suite, where The Other Guys DVD Press Kit played, in a loop, on a large HD television, with the sound off. The press kit included multiple trailers and interview materials with stars not present at the junket, like Michael Keaton.

While we cut our sausages Ted and I chatted about how movie marketing had changed over the years. This publicity DVD we were seeing as ambient background video would be sent to news outlets that couldn’t pay a journalist’s expenses to the junket, in the hopes that an entertainment reporter would do a piece on the film for a local TV market.

Finally, it was Ted’s turn. We were ushered by a smiling brunette into the space between the suite and the pool where we were picked up by another smiling brunette and brought to a space between the space between and the pool, past a buffet of fruit and water, to a waiting space in the shade. We waited quietly. We chatted. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg were visible on a temporary, elevated platform, under a white tent, wearing sunglasses, tan and smiling. They talked to whoever had been ushered into the director’s chair opposite them.

This was when I found out that these interviews lasted a total of four minutes. Every journalist was allotted four minutes with Eva Mendes, and four minutes with Wahlberg and Ferrell together. They would then take their tapes with them back to their station/show and build a story. As a writer, my notion of an interview is that it takes about an hour to get enough material for a story. I don’t know what I expected for TV, but I was surprised.

“Four minutes?” I said, incredulously, to Ted. “That’s it?”

“It’s not long,” he said. “We used to get six.”

TV time is not regular time.

I didn’t get to hear what any of the other journalists asked. I imagine that the actors spent the whole day answering very similar questions about their rapport, what it was like to work with director McKay, and what they’re headed to next. When it was Ted’s turn to interview Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, I stole twelve inches on the platform, held out my hand, and thanked them for “making my face hurt so much.” I was sincere--in a vast sea of bad comedy, I really did think The Other Guys was terrifically funny. And I loved the politics.

Ted asked a great question about whether Ferrell and Wahlberg were “on board” with the political angle of the movie, which is decisively anti-mega-corporation, even anti-capitalist.

“Of course,” Ferrell said.

“It’s one of the reasons we wanted to do it,” said Wahlberg.

Considering the paltry amount of time allowed and the generally content-less entertainment stories mainstream journalists seem compelled to make, this moment seemed pretty good. When you take another step back of course, the paltry amount of time allowed and the lack of content in entertainment stories is a totally unacceptable situation. I'm all for compression. What I saw was that someone like me, who craves meaningful discourse, will grasp at straws where there is no content. It helped that Ted was so amenable to my questions--what's the point of these interviews if they're all the same? People want to see their familiar anchor/journalist with the stars. What's the point of doing a news story on a movie that's already getting so heavily promoted? Ted thinks this is the kind of promotion that matters most, actually, because it is part of other, socially legitimized media, not an advertisement. How exactly did the scene come to be run by PYT's? No idea, really.

While Ted and I waited for his tapes back in the Ritz suite, I was again mistaken for a journalist. On our way out, we were handed a gift box, in perfect New York-doughnut-shop-pink. Inside: a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts gift card and a very nice Thermos-brand travel mug, emblazoned with The Other Guys, of course.

“Coffee and doughnuts for the cop film,” Ted smiled. “Cute.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's Not Wrong With Self-Publishing

Let's start with a quick breakdown: the credibility of a DIY project varies dramatically depending on the medium one is working with. If you are a musician or a filmmaker, a DIY project can garner instant respect, especially if it turns out well. It is the fruit of a heroic devotion to your dream. If you are a writer, but even more specifically if you are a fiction writer, self-publishing is about as respected as blatant nepotism. Read a bit more about this basic disparity (if you don't get it already) here at the Washington Post.

We've moved from calling them "vanity presses" to "self-publishing" houses. That does seem like some small forward motion. But the stigma that people who pay to publish their own books are (1) less talented writers than those who are already under the protective financial blanket of traditional houses and (2) narcissists, remains. And, due in part to the fact that most self-published titles are nonfiction, the stigma is stronger for fiction writers. (I openly acknowledge here that many self-published fiction titles are in desperate need of editing and don't bear up well under literate scrutiny. However, I also submit: the majority of websites are poorly designed and/or written. Somehow we don't dismiss the internet based on that fact.) 

Another reason why the stigma is strong for fiction writers is that underneath the grand ubiquity of the big houses, there is a thriving and brilliant culture of smaller presses such as Greywolf, Akashic, and Red Hen, plus hundreds of literary magazines in which fiction writers who are "serious" about literature (i.e. hold an MFA, read current literary fiction, go to readings, teach writing, and so on) can theoretically be getting published. So self-publishing a fiction book appears to be the choice for people who have generally failed to write well enough to be chosen.

But here is an interesting fact: of the 750,000 self-published titles last year, average sales equals ten copies. Ten. There were somewhere around 300,000 traditionally published books, and it's harder to find average sales for those, but I'll put a serious amount of money on it being higher--much higher.

This disparity in sales is not simply because self-published books can't find their audience, it's because many self-published writers aren't interested in marketing. They wanted to write a book, they did it, and really they just wanted a few copies for their friends/family/coworkers. The self-published writers who are willing to commit some time and money to marketing their books end up doing very much the same thing authors at small houses do now: they schedule their own events, make their own publicity calls, send out their own books to smaller magazines for reviews, and so on. That at a small press you might have one or two marketing people serving 20 writers means that most authors who aren't getting a big push at Random House are doing a lot of the legwork on their own.

I believe traditional publishing to be a paternalistic, failing business model. What I respect and love about it is the way a team of people all work together to make a book, and to make a book available to readers. What I hate is that it is the publishers (i.e. people with financial interests at the fore) who are the arbitors of culture. With self-publishing, much like the internet, there is a theoretical democratizing of the means to cultural production. As a writer, I am no longer told by Big Daddy Publisher Man what is worth publishing and what isn't. I may be told what will be backed by marketing dollars, what will likely sell to the widest number of readers, and so on, but I have so much more room to breathe when it comes to just making BOOKS. The downside, of course, is that I am not in a close editorial relationship with someone who can help me make my novel better than it was. Oh, wait, most writers don't have that anymore either. It's only a few small presses that do any developmental editing anymore.

The advent of ebooks is another piece in the puzzle--and it is a big one, according to the Wall Street Journal. Authors have even more control in the emarketplace.

So the question I am fielding as I near the release date of A Crack in Everything, my first novel and a self-published title, is: Why would YOU choose to self-publish? The assumptions here are basic: I am an already-published writer in the early bloom of a career, I have the requisite degree, and I'm obviously serious about literary fiction, so logically I should have gone with a small press, if I couldn't get a deal at a big house.

The fact is: even the small presses are flooded with submissions, and as literary agents feel the squeeze of a shrinking traditional publishing field, they aren't taking on a lot of new authors. So let's be clear: I didn't reject any offers from small presses in favor of a self-publishing model. I didn't and don't have an agent. (Yes, I want one.) I simply decided to stop pounding the pavement for a novel that needed to get kicked out of the nest. I love A Crack in Everything for what it is, but I'm done working on it. I'm writing a new book. I'm entering a PhD program. I wanted to give Crack a body, and then turn her loose.

This is the great beauty of self-publishing, and one reason why I feel I'm part of a fiction vanguard, instead of an embarrassed band of self-righteous rejects. Publishing has already changed. Publishers are slow to catch up. Even the solidly creative, truly interesting and wonderful work coming from small presses functions in what feels to me like a rather incestuous clique of cool kids who like to print each others' stuff. I don't much blame them for this--they don't have time to vet the billion new MFA writers sending them manuscripts every day, and what they're putting out is by and large awesome. I'd love to be one of the cool kids with a punk-rock marketing plan and a Brooklyn freelancer doing my retro-chic covers. I'd love this more than I'd like to be a big-list Random House author, because of the great amount of creative freedom and teamwork that is missing at the top. 

I will likely never write a piece of fiction that you can buy in an airport bookstore--mainstream fiction is not how my brain works now and I'm only getting weirder. My first novel is a kind of hybrid erotic-political-literary-twenty-something micro-bildungsroman, and the next book I'm writing is more fragmented, more academic, and has more sex in it. Maybe I'll find a home at a small press in the next few years, and maybe not. What I care about is ensuring that I am in a situation where I can make art without concern for the market, and that is nearly impossible once you've been contracted by a publisher whose main goal is profit.

This is what I celebrate most about self-publishing, small presses, ebooks, and every other force that undermines the New York hegemony: that the capitalists are less and less in charge of what is being bought, and therefore what is being written. Sure, Dan Brown will still sell millions of copies to my few hundred (or thousand, if I'm fortunate), but because of the internet I have the capability to connect directly with readers in a way that was twenty years ago nearly impossible. I know iUniverse (one of the largest self-publishing businesses, and the one I'm using) runs on a business model that emphasizes selling "services" to authors instead of selling books, but a savvy self-publishing writer can still use any one of the supported self-publishing houses for their basic book design, print-on-demand, and distribution infrastructure without becoming a victim of the company's system. In other words, we can use the tools of the capitalists to take back control of the means of production. Are most self-published books just a boring rehashing of existing cultural values? Sure. But the morphing structure of publishing offers greater opportunity for revolutionary work to take shape and become available, and that's thrilling.

Authors at traditional houses (with the exclusion, again, of many small presses) are generally left out of much of the production of a book, and give the rights to the publisher for a specified period of time--sometimes as long as the book stays in print. They are defensive players: constantly fielding attempts to change things that may or may not need changing, having to justify any problems they might have with typesetting and cover design. If they make a certain sales goal with one book and not the next, they can get dropped, even if their second book did very well. As a self-published writer, I retain copyright and could go with a different publisher at any time. I give design input that would never be allowed at a traditional house. As long as I keep my wits about what I invest, and remember not to become emotionally affected by the systemic prejudice against DIY books, I get to enter a whole new game. And in this game, I am the offensive striker, not the goalie.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sweatshirt, Sweatshirt, You Come Here!

This horse sweatshirt is on its way to guarding my arms through a second round of summer chills. I bought it at the Hollywood Ross for less than half of what Hurley intended me to pay in the early part of summer, 2009. It has built-in thumb-holes, custom friendship-bracelet-like hoodie pulls, and no one can tell me for certain if it is red or orange, because it is both. I wore it on Phish Tour last year. I wore it to and from Manzanillo. I wore it to and from Burning Man. I wore it on many sad nights, and during many beautiful days. I wore it on beautiful nights and sad days. I wore it in New York and North Carolina and Washington State and back home again. 

When I was a small girl, I had a favorite green sweatshirt. Deep in my mother's archive of things-we-pull-out-once-every-five-years, there is a cassette tape, upon which I am singing a song I wrote that has a verse about the sweatshirt. I think it goes thusly:

Sweatshirt, sweatshirt, you come here!
You've got a mommy and you've got a daddy

At least, one of the verses goes like that. There is a microphone verse, too, in which the microphone's mother is crying for the microphone to come home. The point of the song, it seems, is that errant objects just need to be reminded they are loved at home, and they will come back from whatever their suspicious wanderings. This level of complexity seems a little farfetched? 

Imagine a small child who loses things constantly. Imagine a small child who loses things that are expensive as easily as she loses things that are cheap. Imagine a small child living in a communal household with her mother, for half the week, and a shared apartment, with her father, for the other half, and imagine this child knows, without being told in any rude or pressured way, that there simply isn't a lot of money around. Things that are lost are not always replaced. Imagine that this child wants desperately to make life easier for her overworked and loving parents, and imagine that every time she loses something she feels a horrible sense of guilt and sadness and also, a certain befuddlement, since she can never remember leaving anything anywhere. Imagine the small step it would take for this small child to conclude that it is the things themselves who behave poorly, since she never intends to.

Sweatshirt, sweatshirt, you come here. I probably said it many times, as I looked around my desk at school, as I ran back to the playground after the bell rang, as I checked in the car on my way to mom's, as I checked in the car on my way to dad's. 

I developed little systems, suggested by various people. Put your things in the same place when you come in every day. Count how many things you have on one hand when you get somewhere, and then count again when you leave. Eventually I started losing things less often. 

Now, something bizarre has happened. I will have the sudden pang of "realization" that I have forgotten something (keys! phone! wallet! sweatshirt!) and then lo and behold, one of my reaction-systems, which are all now totally unconscious, has actually kept the "forgotten" thing in its right place. The panic ends, and I marvel simultaneously at: (1) how incredibly powerful my habit-training to not lose things has become and (2) how incredibly powerful the habit of feeling like I'm forgetting something still is, despite (1).

Maybe my attachment to this horse sweatshirt is just a replay of my attachment to the green sweatshirt of my childhood, and maybe my attachment to that green sweatshirt was the result of that effort I made, knowing I was Someone Who Lost Things, to have something I loved that I did NOT lose, to prove to myself and to Mom and Dad and especially Erica that I could be responsible, too, since responsibility was very much a part of giving and receiving love, and maybe through some psychological process I am loathe to find a name for the sweatshirt itself became the symbol of freedom from my old identity as a Loser and a badge of honor in my hoped-for new identity as a Keeper. A Keeper does not lose things, and therefore a Keeper deserves to be kept.

The orange sweatshirt certainly is symbolic: I got it not long before Louis and I broke up, and I was wearing it the night we did, and that means this sweatshirt is a talisman of sorts. It soaked up my grief, it frayed and grayed a bit along with me as I traveled and healed. I have affection for it, this piece of my uniform during a long year of change. I would be sad if I left it somewhere--much sadder than if I left any one of about four other sweatshirts I own. It could be scrapbooked or framed. Instead I will wear it until it falls apart, or I inexplicably fall off the Keeper wagon, or I loan it to someone who never felt compelled to get on that particular wagon and they leave it somewhere. 

In the last two cases, I will sing the Sweatshirt song, at least once, just in case the sweatshirt feels like coming home.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Interview With a Vegan: The Director's Cut

The following interview with New York-based Max Hodes (see "Not a review of the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus") was conducted via Gchat for the purpose of an article on urban American vegans. The interview was slated to appear in a Cairo-based magazine in which I have already been published. 

I submitted an edited version with comments from another vegan in LA. I have not heard back from the magazine.

hodes: This is the new chat. Out with the old chat!
me: Hello Max Hodes.
hodes: Hello Vanessa Carlisle
me: I need your permission to "record" this conversation/reprint/edit for the purposes of publication
hodes: You have it.
me: Great!
So you're a vegan.
hodes: I hereby bestow upon thee absolute permission to print this and anything else, true or false in perpetuity forever and ever amen.
me: Excellent. I will be listening to M.I.A during this interview. What are you listening to?
hodes: whoarfrost
I'll stop for now
me: Let's say you're at a bar somewhere in NYC. A cute girl asks you what you "do." How do you answer?
hodes: I'm a musician, audio engineer, and music producer. I make money as a bike courier
if they are interesting I tell them my plan to meta-program the human hive mind
me: When the tray of cheese comes around, do you decline with or without mentioning that you are a vegan?
hodes: depending on how insecure I feel at that moment, it's a 50-50 shot
me: insecure= not mentioning?
hodes: when I'm desperate to have a personality I'll mention that I'm a vegan
me: ah, I had it backward
what personality traits do you think are associated with being a vegan?
and do you think you have them?
hodes: Discipline and compassion clothed in punk rock
I think I do exhibit those personality traits, but I wouldn't call myself a punk
nor, for that matter, a vegan
because I take whey protein these days as a quick to up my overall protein intake
but I just ordered ten pounds of soy/gemma pea mix
and I'd like to get back on the wagon
me: Let's just keep calling you a vegan. Shhhhhh.
Actually--let's follow this train. How many vegans do you know, and do they stay on the wagon? Or do you think vegans "cheat" regularly?
hodes: I don't keep in contact with a single person who is still a vegan that I know of
me: Do you think it would be easier to do it if you did?
hodes: no
me: Because?
hodes: I lost a great deal of weight when I first became a vegan, and times when eaten creatures with hearts for a week or more I've seen the gain and didn't like it
me: M.I.A. is stressing me out. I'm changing to Beta Band. Tell me if the interview tone changes.
hodes: you were very magazine for a minute
me: I'm writing for a magazine, dude.
You will represent all of NYC punk vegans to them
bwa haha
hodes: we all like tank-tops
that's what I can say for sure
me: and my friend Cassandra will represent all Hollywood glossy vegans to them. bwa hah a ha.
hodes: I think I should be listening to the Byrds.
Ah wait: FUgazi!
now I've got it
me: Ok. When did you decide to become a vegan, and why. In like, four sentences or less.
hodes: the ease of being a vegan is, to me, the same ease of working out, practicing my guitar, riding my bike a long distance: I anticipate benefits
I decided to become a Vegan when I read "No More Bull" a book my ex-girlfriend asked me to read.
the book is a sacred-straight style text
about the potential diseases in meat and lack of nutrition in dairy
me: So you made the decision for health reasons primarily?
hodes: entirely
me: because I remember you eating a lot of ribs one time.
hodes: I have compassion for animals, but it's never stopped me from eating them

there is a line of reasoning present that at one time led me to believe that I SHOULD be eating people if I also ate cows and chickens
me: aside: go here and scroll down to the Laker parade. I took that picture.
hodes: but then I found, through further reading, that animals consuming their own species usually produces a brain-degenerating disease
LA looks particularly radiant in victory
I was going to say like a pig that knows it will never be eaten, but it looks nothing like that
me: LA looks like a pig that knows it will never be eaten? 

hodes: nothing like it
that would look like welling black pools reflecting a country spring
me: Tell me something about veganism that you don't like
hodes: LA in victory looks like UBER-LA without so many class distinctions
what I don't like about veganism is on the one hand people bending over backwards to accomidate me, because that usually leads them to talk as if I'm part of a new religion that EVERYONE else has already accepted but they've only just heard of
and also when people tell me why they themselves are not vegan
and the lack of cheese
 Sent at 9:20 PM on Tuesday

hodes: on those moments when I've had extraordinary cheeses: last year, end of June, country jamboree in Conway, MA I had an unbelieveable brie; two years ago we ate some 7000 year old Vermont cheddar that produced a zen state and mild hallucinations because my brain flooded with all the chemicals I like, mostly cheese; those time make me think that cheese might be the second greatest human achievement after music
unfortunately it's not really food the same way a yam is food
it's more food than a twizzler
but not by much
me: You are the best interview subject anyone has ever had. I can't wait until you are a slight bit famous and I get to interview you for BUST.
Tell me something you love about veganism
hodes: I can't wait for my playgirl spread
what I love about veganism is the clean feeling it leaves in my body
it's hard to remember that I used to feel sluggish, bloated, and always like sitting
veganism and excorcise makes me leap about like a spring lamb
me: can you try another metaphor?
hodes: I feel a bit more like I'm always on a trampoline
me: also, did you mean exercise? or are you exorcising on a regular basis now too?
hodes: good call
I do that too
and that makes a huge difference
the other day I projectile vomited in heavy rotations for fifteen minutes!
my roomates were pissed and the cat was soaked!
but after a night of Bible verse and a stern talking-to from the Rabbi the demons moved on
I have to say as well, admit rather, that there is a degree of ethical convenience I feel
in proportion to the ethical stance of "it's bad to eat animals, but fuck it 'cause I love cow fat"
I feel a certain uplift knowing that I'm not bowing to my craving for easy fat sources
and in the process saving some cute lives
me: What do you mean by "ethical convenience"
hodes: it's trite bullshit
I think I need to reverse it
conveniently ethical
me: So you're selfishly vegan?
hodes: as in "isn't it great that I'm a vegan for health and also living up to an ethical standard I didn't really care about in the first place?"
me: ah. great. this is really great.
by that I mean hilarious.
hodes: I think I met some punks once who were vegans and it wasn't a sham
me: meaning?
hodes: they run a restaurant in Boston
and asked me not to wear my leather jacket
because it hurt them in some way I could not understand
me: So you are not opposed to animal products like leather, honey, etc
hodes: hell no
as far as I can tell
me: I think you should start calling me honey
hodes: is produced in a symbiotic relationship between humans and bees that is mutually beneficial
okay Honey
me: not capitalized. that's the name of the Babe in Boinkland.
hodes: but you should listen to the mariah carey song of the same name on repeat for the duration of the interview
me: no
hodes: okay honey
whatever you say honey
incidentally I found out that there is a type of honey from the black forest that is made from sugar sucked off of some insects' anuses
it's spicey and delicious
me: what about products like soap made from animal fats? Do you check ingredients on everything?
hodes: fuck!
I forgot to do that
all this time
fortunately I almost never use soap
I mostly use detergents
and bathe infrequently
me: So if you were asked to list five characteristics that identified you, would "vegan" feature among them?
hodes: no
nor would "punk"
me: have you ever convinced anyone else to stop eating animals?
hodes: I've gradually worn on my sister
but she read "The Omnivores Dilemma" and I think that did most of the work
me: Any favorite recipes?
hodes: I become an evangilest about it when I see someone teetering on the edge but their habits hold them back
favorite recipes: for a throwback junk-crave satisfactomatic
I bye TVP beef
and vegan cheese
as orange as I can find
saute green peppers and yellow onions in olive oil, add the cheese and beef until it's a hot mess and slam it in a shitty white hogey
cheese steak!
me: sounds positively delicious
hodes: for breakfast I like to blend raw kale, filtered water, and a vegan protein powder into a thick sludge and drink it as fast as I can
me: you are disturbingly masculine in this regard.
hodes: you should see me drinking it
head tossed back as if by the wind
me: you should have called me honey then
hodes: adam's apple heaving up and down
you are right
I'm bad at pet names
me: but you're good at not eating pets!
badum bum!
hodes: I really enjoy green salads with walnuts, avacadoes and tofu
I like to make sauce and I count salad dressing as a sauce
olive oil, chili oil, garlic salt and pepper and whatever dried green leaves I've got around
over kale and spinich with roma tomatoes red onions or shallots
me: Could you fall in love with a non-vegan?
hodes: yes
I could
but I might resist it
and I would certainly be really turned off if I ever tasted meat in her mouth
me: And, scene.
hodes: unless twer mine
me: that goes in the director's cut, I guess.
I need you to send me a picture of you now.
hodes: hmmm
let me who has a digital camera
me: you and the Beta Band are making the same noise
hodes: no one has taken a picture of me in months
except for security guards in midtown
me: Let's end this interview. Take one with your phone.

hodes: got it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

LA Lakers 2010, A Sonata in 3 Movements

Game Seven at the Golden Gopher
Thursday 6/17/10. With Lindsey and Anthony.

In the beginning we were not happy, and we stayed that way for most of the game. We did eventually find beers at the Golden Gopher after hours of trekking around downtown searching for a place to watch the game with other fans. 

We had given up on saving money, given up on meeting the other four people we were supposed to see that night, and were resigned to waiting in line and paying thirty dollars a head at Trader Vic’s. Once seated, we were informed that no, actually, we would be paying a minimum of fifteen dollars per hour per person. It was four PM--we’d be paying nearly seventy-five each. We left. This hurt a bit, as the mix of Lakers and Tiki was deeply appealing.

However. The Golden Gopher is beautiful. Dark fabric, big bar, big screen, lamps made out of golden gophers. It is my new favorite downtown bar. I drank tangerine wheat beer and watched Kobe play the worst game of his career. We screamed and moaned and had occasional triumphant hollerings as the low-scoring, ridiculously sloppy game unfolded, and when Sasha made those two free-throws, the entire bar erupted in the whoops of people who are getting freed. We watched Kobe lift the trophy, we cried, and then we ran out onto the street!

The scene downtown was postmodern, fast, and strange. Exultant fans from every area of Los Angeles in various levels of confrontation with stern police. Extremely stern. I watched two undercover cops wrestle a man to the ground (he wasn’t resisting) and push his face into the pavement while they cuffed him. When the crowd around protested this behavior, police in full riot gear (rifles, femur-length black billy clubs, helmets, cans of tear gas) made a perimeter around the arrest and started screaming at us to get away. We had just been screamed at to get out of the street, and now we were getting screamed at to get off the sidewalk, back into the street. It was frustratingly chaotic. When I read the paper the next day, I hated how the reports did not mention the attitude of the cops. I realize they were embarrassed by the riots last year. I do not think this excuses behaving as if everyone in a Lakers jersey is about to kick them in the shins. The truth is, we were too happy to get angry that night, running down Broadway with our fists in the air, giving high-fives to all the jubilant revelers stuck in their cars.

Pau Gasol on Jay Leno
Friday 6/18/10. With Ted Chen.

My friend Ted Chen, an anchor at NBC, was kind enough to bring me along to a taping of the Tonight Show when his out-of-town friend couldn’t make it. Pau Gasol, one of my favorite Lakers, wore a pink shirt and spoke humbly about how sweet the win was. He’s going to go watch a spinal surgery get performed next week, because he is curious. He said his mother is a doctor, his father is a nurse, and all three of their children are ridiculously tall. Jay Leno is an expert at reading cue cards, if that wasn’t already obvious.

During the show taping, the Tonight Show Band played “American Idiot,” originally by Green Day. I couldn’t hear how they dealt with the words “fuck” and “faggot,” but just knowing that The Tonight Show Band was playing a song with these lyrics:

Don’t want to be an American idiot
One nation controlled by the media
Information age of hysteria
It’s going out to Idiot America

Let’s just say I felt very, very uncomfortable. Isn’t the “Idiot America” of this song exactly the same people who come to a Jay Leno taping on a Friday afternoon from a small town somewhere outside of California (where the Hollywood dreams still seem so fancy)? Isn’t “Idiot America” the large swath of people who think David Spade’s jokes about “feeding the people” with his leftover hamburgers are funny? Isn’t it “Idiot America” who assumes that the guy getting arrested after Game Seven deserved to get his face smashed into the pavement? The us-and-them divide came perilously close to collapsing as I clapped along when the “Applause” sign lit up.
I found out in the Green room that Leno didn’t even watch the game. Ted asked him casually about it, and Leno said, “I was working.” Then we took a picture.
This is a weird town, I thought. This Leno is a weird person, to care so little about what’s happening in his own weird town, the town where his show is King of NBC. Or maybe he cares a great deal about something else important, and his breezy on-screen personality belies it. That's the optimist in me. I admit to suspecting otherwise.

The Laker Parade
Monday 6/21/10. Alone in a crowd. Then with Anthony and Lindsey.

I got up and put on the gear: purple shoes, Lindsey’s Rodman jersey, gold glitter. I packed a bag: water bottle, journal, Lakers jacket, trail mix, a copy of Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenriech. In the fifteen minutes it took me to research the train route, I read at least five hateful comments online about how hoodlum Laker fans who “don’t work” were going to ruin “my city.” I saw a post that read “come on, who can actually get downtown at 11am on a Monday? People who don't work.” In other words: lazy people? Poor people. Blacks. Hispanics. Teenagers. Alcoholics, hoodlums, asshole un-Americans who should be trying to get goddamn jobs!!!! Au contraire, mon ennemi. So many of us have odd work schedules, and so many others took that day or hour off far in advance. And if, after reading Nickel and Dimed, you still think it appropriate to condemn the under- or unemployed, you may simply suck it.
Today it’s impossible to find those pieces of virtual vitriol to share with you.

I read Nickel and Dimed on the train, and got even more mad, at how little the American middle class seems to understand American poverty. I got mad at myself for how little I understand. I followed a huge group of Laker fans out of the train. I was the only blonde white girl among them, it’s true--I'm one of the few in my neighborhood. I wasn’t the only blonde white girl at the parade. However, I am unnerved by the divide: the Laker games are packed with white people who can afford tickets. The parade was not. (Although I did see quite a few guys in suits wearing gold ties, whooping it up with the rest of us!) But at the parade, for a few raucous minutes, no one cared about these things. We were all screaming together when Kobe rode by. I took some frantic iPhone pictures. I made friends with two adorably short girls in purple sneakers, dodged a few blasting horns, and found Anthony and Lindsey at the corner of Pico and 11th. We walked through the detritus and ate lunch in the fashion district. It was glorious, except for the long line of more police in riot gear who kept their hands on their tear gas canisters. “We’re just walking!” I wanted to shout. But then, would that have been provocation enough to get gassed? The eternal Machiavellian conundrum. I wonder how much money taxpayers shelled out for those police, and if the damages of the “riots” cost more or less.

What I loved was how everyone continued to scream “Go Lakers!” to each other, whenever they saw anyone wearing Laker gear. The chant has changed meanings! It no longer is a piece of encouragement for a team that is scrabbling its way through the Finals. It is piece of metropolitan glue that keeps us hoping, with and for each other, for more to be proud of.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Captain EO Matters

When I bought my first Disneyland Annual Pass in September of 2008, I had a vision: one visit to Disney a month, even if only for a few hours by myself, and a blog to accompany. A year of Disneyland writings. 

I didn't do it.

Notwithstanding, here I am again, still thinking and writing about Disneyland. I've been revising the chapter in my first novel that takes place there. I've been revisiting the sections of Baudrillard's writings on the postmodern and hyperreal in which Disneyland is dissected.

And a few days ago, I watched Captain EO in the 3D theater where I first saw it in 1986. 

I spend a little time researching the film, reading old reviews from the 80s, and trying to understand why people had such a problem with it, since it's always been such a joy to me. It became very popular on Youtube during its absence from the Disney park (1997-2010) and, of course, especially after MJ died. However, when it first premiered, it received lukewarm reception and attendance steadily decreased over the years.

Captain EO is a seventeen-minute music video with a message: art and a sense of community can change the world. I think maybe the reason so many people respond poorly to it is not that it is rife with "empty effects" (I'd argue that someone's body lighting up when they are excited is actually a very meaningful effect) but because they have the same problem they've always had with Michael Jackson: he was not ironic about his hope for the world.

He actually sings "We are here to change the world," and means it. The world itself they land on goes from being an ugly techno-trash heap (think Death Star surface) to something like a Greek temple. It is music, dance, generosity, fearlessness, and having faith in friends that does this. Blam. No mistake about what's important.

So why did American critics call the show "empty?"

I wonder if this is a problem of complicated vs. complex. In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson argued that because popular media has become more complicated, i.e., rife with many more characters, subplots, twists and turns, etc., we are actually getting better, cognitively, at doing certain tasks. We are better problem solvers, predictors of outcomes, and more sophisticated at deciphering an increasingly loud and stimulating world, in part because certain of our media (he argues this for particular television shows like The Sopranos, film, and video games) layer on meanings.  Production teams do this so that we can enjoy (read: purchase, instead of rent) the movies/shows more than once, Johnson argues. He is very careful, however, not to make an argument that these more complicated media forms are actually making our moral thinking, or any other types of our analytical powers, stronger. In other words, we may be better at dealing with a lot of data flying around, but we are not necessarily grappling with philosophical or ethical problems any more carefully than the Beverly Hillbilly generation. The New York Times seems particularly preoccupied with social scientists who are studying these kinds of questions. 

Something complicated may be unnecessarily opaque. Something complex is actually built of meaningful layers, and takes some analytical energy to piece out. Most questions of ethics, especially those that involve large groups of people: families, cities, nations--are complex. But when we want to arrive at certain answers, they need not be complicated. 

For instance: in Captain EO, the Supreme Leader resorts immediately to violence when she finds herself presented with unfamiliar visitors. A complex analysis of this response may yield some good information: possibly she's been invaded before, the planet struggles constantly with raiders, etc. However, EO offers an answer: "congregate, illuminate!" and as complicated as the path towards healing may appear, it is not. It is, however, complex: the courage to surrender when offered something beautiful and the fearlessness to change from despotic rule to collaborative community are not easily achieved. They are multi-valent, fluid ideals that require constant attention.

What saddens me is when people mistake complicated things for complex, and complex for simple. Complicated effects do not make a movie automatically have a complex message. Complex problems can often appear very simple, because they are enduring problems like "why can't we all just get along?" I liked Iron Man and Iron Man 2 (a bit less) for the way they addressed questions about public vs. private in American consciousness, American involvement in foreign wars, and the assumed necessity of war itself. Complex issues, but not rife with unnecessary complications--it's clear, in the end, that killing people, just to start with, but especially for profit, is a bad idea. People watch Captain EO and think, "this is simple, and therefore uninteresting," because instead of making complicated plots, George Lucas likes to make gorgeous illustrations of centuries-old, complex but emotionally familiar narrative structures.

It seems also that American audiences have lost their faith that the body itself can offer us any wisdom--and I'll leave that for other writings, but seeing all of the transformed warriors break into dance behind Jackson made me cry. 

Shake it up and break it up, sharing light brighter than the sun!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Suck The Purell Generation's Toes

Lionel Popkin's 50-minute piece "There is An Elephant in This Dance" blew my mind on Sunday. Check out this LA times review by Victoria Looseleaf. (That's her real name? Wow.)

I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that There is A Snake in this Photo. We'll return to that. During Popkin's "Elephant," one dance refrain, repeated to the point of comedy, was the placing of a finger in the mouth. Specifically, a woman placing her finger in Popkin's mouth, and him accepting it, then trying to push it away, then accepting it, then pushing it away. When he tried to put his finger in her mouth, he was rebuffed effectively. I could write many paragraphs about how this triggered some rumination on gender-power-dynamics.

What I'd rather focus on, though, is how odd it was to see someone putting their hand in someone else's mouth, in public. At another point in the piece, one of Popkin's other dancers licked his own hand, sniffed it, then licked it again. I was delighted. I was reminded of The Toledo Show, with which I performed for three years. The frontman, Toledo, often used to hook his thumb in a dancer's mouth and pull her up from the floor in an incredibly sour-tasting, sexy display of force. We'd come backstage ecstatic, and spitting.

I remember being a pre-teen, watching some rated-R movie with my dad, and feeling utterly confused by a scene involving a woman licking a man's fingers.

"What's she doing that for?" I asked Dad.
"It's sort of a way to say, 'I think you're sexy,'" he answered.
I thought this was preposterous.

The Purell Generation would agree--albeit for different reasons. Pre-adolescence, I was unaware of the nuances of sexual communication. The Purell Generation simply thinks bodies, but hands especially, are dirty. I suppose it's true, in a throw-everything-under-the-UV-light way. But I realized watching Popkin's piece that one of the great attractions to dance, for me, is not only the fundamental sense of powerful embodiment dancers develop, but their lack of squeamishness about things such as dirty hands, farts, blisters, bad breath, etc. This is why I love reading Henry Miller. This is why I like self-proclaimed "Butt Men" over "Boob Men," if a man must fetishize female parts. This is why working with young kids is a joy.

I recently met The Nightwatchman--aka Tom Morello, a powerhouse songwriting guitarist who spends a good deal of his time being a political radical. He's fighting the good fight HARD. He's also stunningly gracious to his fans--most of whom are men, he says--in the way of handshakes, back thumps, and photos. He carries a small bottle of Purell in his pocket.

"Are you serious?" I asked him, about the Purell.
"Hell yeah!" he said. "Do you know how many hot, wet man-hands are on me every night?"
"It sounds like working at a strip club," I said.
"Possibly," he said.

And so I return to the issue of "gross" as I have many times returned to the issue of "fun." I think "gross" is a lie. This is not to say that some evolutionary biologist couldn't describe for me how, when someone near me vomits, I also feel the urge to vomit because in prehistory we all were eating the same poison berries together.
(Morello's Purell is mostly comedy, to me, as I imagine someone like Mick Jagger developing a hand-washing compulsion in the 1970s.)

Freud already did so much of the work for us here: everything human that is "gross" in visible culture has a special area of porn devoted to it--fat, puke, feet, shit, and so on. What I'm talking about is something much more subtle--a cultural delineation of objects of disgust that are arbitrary and sometimes deeply irrational. Most people have no idea what is actually "dirty" in their lives. They touch money, which is much nastier under a UV-light than most human hands, with impunity. They think restaurant food is "clean." They have mass aversion to certain textures, too, which is one of the weirder manifestations of this cultural phenomenon of "gross." Take snakes, for instance. I like touching them! I used to hate touching rat tails. Now I like them too!

What if Lionel Popkin wanted to make the "Elephant" dance but couldn't, because he didn't like feet?

I have an embarrassing, insane, patently prudish disgust-response to the sound of chewing. I really believe that once I figure out why I want to punch people when they eat too loud, I'll be cured of "gross" forever!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Old Ladies Visit Old Ladies, Part 2

I'd like to begin by stating in my defense that the title "Old Ladies Visit Old Ladies" is a near-direct quote from my grandma herself. When I told her I wanted to meet her and her sister Betty Ann (Aunt Betty Ann, also ABA, to me) in Champaign, IL, she said:
"Why would you want to do that? It's just going to be old ladies visiting old ladies."

Indeed. Just that. We stayed with ABA and Grandma's friend Frances, who has a house on the north side of Champaign. We visited with her. We visited also with ABA's friend Cindy, who doesn't quite qualify as "old" in the sense my Gma used it, I think, since she's under 75. We visited some old lady friends at the Methodist Church. We visited a cousin who has a houseful of genealogy records and photos of old ladies, old men, and people who are young in the photos but are now old, or, dead. We visited another niece, who had a shell collection. We went to the cemetery and visited Gma's and ABA's parents.

That was on Mother's Day. I stood at my great-grandmother's grave, with my grandmother and her only sister, and called my mother, and for a brief moment there were four matrilineal generations converging in time-space, under the Illinois sun.

My grandma is one of the most endearingly sweet people I have ever met or heard of. My chronicling of the trip took a decisive turn on the first day when I realized that I was not on the path to some grand Revelation of Dirty Laundry or Great Suppressed Story from the matriarch. There are many suppressed stories in my family: alcoholism, suicide, a gay great uncle, a failed minister, an under-age love stuck across the Atlantic, and probably more. But mine is not the grandma intent on airing such dusty buried treasure. Mine is the grandma who wants to see if the old candy shop is still on the corner. Who remembers that her parents dug out their own basement, shovelful by shovelful. Who grew up during the Depression and WWII and was forever imprinted with the unmistakable need to conserve. She is annoyed by litter and excess, and little else. In fact her cheerfulness seems intrinsic, part of her fabric.

So the nearly four hours of videotape I collected is, in some way, a parade of banality. It is a collection of the precious mundane: Grandma drinking white Carlo Rossi from a champagne glass with Frances. Grandma standing in front of her old sorority house. Grandma getting interested in a flower, a bird, an old sign. Grandma and Aunt Betty Ann arguing, briefly, about when or how something in their childhood happened. Grandma summing up her niece: "She's a character." Aunt Betty Ann reading a book about Frances's home island of Bermuda. Grandma trying on a pair of gold shoes at a thrift store at my urging, then putting them immediately back on the shelf.

So I didn't get "the dirt," in the sense that there will be no dramatic unveiling of the Secret Life of Grandma Laura Gordon. But I didn't expect that, exactly. I did expect to discover some way to think or talk about the content of the chatting the women were doing. I wrote to my little sister Kelsey: They chat all day long. It's an all-day Chat-a-thon. She wrote back: What do they chat about? And I could barely answer. I think the chatting falls into three basic categories.

1) What is in front of us now. Comments made on new drapes, what someone is wearing, how cold it is, and so on. After church, we got to chat about the music, which was beautiful.
2) How things used to be compared to how they are now. I think this portion of the chatting was exaggerated by the fact that I was asking questions about the past. However, wherever there was a material change: a building torn down and a new one in its place, for instance, it got chatted about.
3) What people are up to. The old ladies keep large mental inventories of everyone's children and grandchildren, and ask about them. They remember who went on vacation where, and they ask about it. They have projects they are working on, and they chat about those, and they ask about the projects other people are working on. I heard this question: "And your son So-and So? What's he up to these days? Did he graduate/get married/move/finish his project yet?" and its variants many times.

What was most notable to me was the incredible weight of the euphemisms and subtext used in this chatting. There is actually an entirely different symbolic system being used between women who say "he's not doing well" to each other and somehow understand "he's got chronic pain and depression, and hasn't left the house for two months because he doesn't know how to function in the world." There were many times I pressed a phrase like "she's a character" or "it was a sad story" to get at the actual content, which I could not infer. Sometimes the story would come. Sometimes not. I was in way over my head.

One of my favorite moments in the many minutes of my poorly-filmed family history project was, unsurprisingly, a piece of serendipity. I was filming the inside of a theater where my grandpa used to work. A family was walking out, and one of their small daughters was having trouble getting her coat on. My grandma, who had been telling me about Grandpa, got distracted by the girl and helped her into her coat. The girl responded as if my grandma was hers--no flinching or hesitation. The parents called a thank-you on their way. There's something perfectly safe about my Grandma, I concluded. I have very complicated feelings about that fact. But that moment on camera is adorable, pure and simple, and I'm grateful we all will have it.

I cried on the bus when I left them: Grandma, Aunt Betty Ann, and Frances, all waving to me from the sidewalk in their little sweaters. I filmed them waving, and I filmed my tears, on an impulse to have for at least that moment a coexistence of their unflappable appropriateness and my genuine, extreme, emotional response. I don't know what to make of it all, just yet. But I'll make something. I will make something. Grandma and I agree on this: you use your material, and you use it as well as you can.