Sunday, January 30, 2011
The photo that I found to be the most arresting was that of Fay Watson, apparently snapped on March 26, 1928. There she is in her low-waisted, voile flapper dress, bobbed hair, long-strand knotted pearls, big fabric flower pin, and those heels--dare I say red?...could they be red? We'll never know, I guess, since the photo is in black and white--whose thin straps wrap around the ankles with more fuss than a Roman sandle. But it's her face that is most arresting (pun not intended). She's a woman with a story, sort of like Marlene Dietrich. But it's funny that, in none of the pictures, does she look directly at the camera. She consistently casts her eyes skyward in a gesture plucked directly from silent films or perhaps a publicity still...."Look to the sky, darlings!" I am assuming that the reason Ms. Watson is sitting for the portrait is because she's been had up for prostitution. Or perhaps she's been publicly drunk, but I suspect the former is the reason.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
|Photo Credit: Mark Zimmerman (August 2004)|
See the original image here!
Monday, January 24, 2011
<-- (pictured: "Migrant", 2009 by Kate MacDowell)
Happily, the excellent Society for Contemporary Craft (SCC) has a pdf-accessible version of the article on their website. Check out the whole review, with images, by clicking here. I'm excited to be part of this magazine, especially since I remember sitting in my college library, back in the mid-1990s, reading it with awe. This was one magazine I aspired to be in, and I'm grateful to be there this month.
In the meantime, check out the DIY for yourself, via the virtual tour on the SCC site. (Scroll past the description to see the lovely pictures!) Or better yet, get down there and check it out for yourself. It's up until March 26, 2011.
Friday, January 21, 2011
Q: What was your reaction to [the Swedish Academy member] Horace Engdahl’s comments that American writers are “too isolated, too insular” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture”? Do you know of any writers who defy this characterization? --Philip Bestrom
A: I would hope that writers everywhere are sensitive to trends in their own culture. We rely on them to notice, to dissect, and to record social behavior so that we can learn from it, build on it, or improve it. As for insularity among American writers, I have yet to encounter any."
-- Deborah Triesman, for the New Yorker
Horace Engdahl's diatribe (you can read it in its entirety at The Guardian by clicking on the word "comments" above) is a generalization--certainly not every American writer is exclusively introspective...looking into his or her own personal, regional, or national concerns, although this exists, I think, among younger writers. But, but, but....I qualify this statement with the idea (expanded below) that this tendency towards personal (and as Engdahl calls it, "insular") interests also has the potential to teach humanity, at large, something about itself and where it stands...perhaps also where it is going, if it continues on the current path. But more on this in a moment.
First, I want to say that I like Deborah Triesman's answer, and I've inadvertantly used a version of Triesman's idea to justify and explain the value of studying fiction to my more reluctant Gen Ed literature students. Through reading fiction, poetry, and drama, they (hopefully) learn how to analyze and understand themes--the underlying meanings that are intended to teach something about life, about ourselves. Often, literature reveals (for the students who take the time to read and understand the works presented) a similarity of experience. And important to remember is that stories, poems, and drama are frequently the avenues by which a writer deals with his or her own experiences (right now, I've got The Glass Menagerie in mind as an example) or helps to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable. Writing is catharsis for both writer and reader (Now I'm thinking of Sophocles and Aristotle...tragedy as didactic catharsis....)
Certainly, these characteristics are true of literature from decades before, when we, the readers, recognized in dynamic characters a similarity of experience: We were not alone in our difficulties, our inability to pay the rent or to find happiness. And I admit that this perception, too, is a generalization. And even as American storytelling has become filled with microcosmic cataclysms and personal neuroses that seem significant only in their trainwreck-worthy ability to fascinate, this fiction--this contemporary literary expression--reveals a great deal about the state of the human condition now. We are in a particular mind-set that informs how and what we write about.
So, this brings me back back to what I promised two paragraphs ago. What does America's contemporary fiction--meaning the fiction of right now, in all its fragmented and shortened formats--tells us objectively about our mental state now? Well, for one, we are obsessed with crime and disaster. We are frequently giddy with schadenfreude, and we are subject to short bouts of concentration. Contemporary flash--as it is coming out of online writers now--is, in broad terms, a portrait of our disaffected culture. Our 180-degree view of the world (like that of the 19th-century) is considerably narrowed, even as our everyday expectations are higher. This is what fuels contemporary literature, and by contemporary, I mean work appearing in online literary journals, from which indie and sometimes mainstream books are later born. Here the most prominent indie voices reveal our world view, which seems to be getting smaller, more concentrated on the dark, showing us to be less optimistic. We no longer seek solutions or life prescriptions, like Thoreau and Emerson. We don't hitch our wagons to stars. We don't necessarily seek political engagement. We appear not to be a hopeful bunch, but one focused on human weakness in its myriad forms.
So what are we now, if contemporary literature gives us a clue to our identities? I'm open to discussion.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
The effect is haunting. The mixture of period and contemporary music brings the installation out of the early 20th century and into the 21st, spurring visitors to consider contemporary parallels to the immigrant anarchists' plight. What similar oppositional forces do grassroots revolutionaries and independent thinkers now face?"
Check out the whole review here.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
"The elite schools, which trumpet their diversity, base this diversity on race and ethnicity, rarely on class. The admissions process, as well as the staggering tuition costs, precludes most of the poor and working class. When my son got his SAT scores back last year, we were surprised to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. He dislikes math. He is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive tutor from The Princeton Review who taught him the tricks and techniques of taking standardized tests. The tutor told him things like “stop thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting test time thinking about the ideas. Just spit back what they tell you.” His reading score went up 130 points. Was he smarter? Was he a better reader? Did he become more intelligent? Is reading and answering multiple-choice questions while someone holds a stopwatch over you even an effective measure of intelligence? What about those families that do not have a few thousand dollars to hire a tutor? What chance do they have?"
-- Chris Hedges, "The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff"
I'm an adjunct, a very poorly paid adjunct. I spend 16 weeks each semester doing a great deal of work for far less than minimum wage, and that's with three or four classes and their relevant office hours, prep time, grading time, and dealing with the whitewater churned by abusive students. Believe me, I've had them. And at community colleges, especially as an adjunct, you are on your own. Get tough, girl, or go home. But, putting that aside, the issue I mean to get to here is that I spend a great deal of time in my composition and rhetorics classes on "critical thinking." I tell my students that this is one of the most important skill sets that you can leave college with. I often say, "Knowledge of statistics and factual details is extremely important to your future professions, but critical thinking is something you will use in every facet of your life. Consider critical thinking to be equivalent to freedom of choice--the freedom to make an informed decision. Look for the deeper message: what are they really saying when this author or commentator tells you something? Or, what is the real agenda? What does this word mean in light of what you already know?"....etc, etc. I tell them that the words "should" and "must" and the phrase "have to" should make red flags go up in their minds because each of these signal an imposed opinion, including the statement I have just made. If they are aware of these "watch words" and their implications, they then have the choice to follow the prescription or ignore it. There are some students who pay attention, and for this, I am grateful. But many of them could give a rip. So, I teach to those who (I think) do care. That's all I can do.
Lately, I've been having trouble getting any of my work published. I'll call it creative non-fiction because while it is embellished, it is largely based on truth. One of these works is about the education system, a system that makes it hard for adjuncts to give the grades students actually earn, grades that would fail out most of these students who do not invest the appropriate amount of effort. The schools themselves are worried about retention numbers because high numbers means earning power and access to government allocations.
Many of these students are going into the healthcare field, which I find relatively frightening. Some of them manifest such a lack of engagement that I wonder what kind of healthcare workers they will become. Their desire seems only to text during class (either furtively or sometimes openly), to watch the glowing smart phone screen instead of the information being presented on the board. Some of them are so high when they get to class, I can see their expansive pupils all the way at the front of the room, or I can tell that they can't keep their eyes open. Many openly sleep as soon as class begins. And I wonder why they bothered to show up. Often, they do not. Combine this with their combative nature over having to write a 5-7 page paper by the end of the semester, and I realize that, if this is the new student--the future of this country, or at least this region--we are in serious trouble. This behavior and this failure to engage in anything but social experiences, suggests that our nation will simply continue to decline. If they do not develop their critical thinking skills, these students will continue to be lead by whoever looks good, whoever has the most superficially 'persuasive' speech (I use the word 'persuasive' loosely), or whoever can blow the thickest smokescreen. Some of these students, I would wager, won't even participate at all. It's like an opium den in so many of my classes, although the opium can be anything from weed to dilaudid (I'm guessing on this from the slurred speech and closing lids) to texting to Facebook for the iPhone --they're hooked on things that have little value to real life and its true issues.....
...and then, I realize that I, who studied extremely hard and graduated at the top of my class and went abroad on a relatively prestigious scholarship, am teaching for less than minimum wage and taking abuse for it to boot. And I wonder if these kids don't have it right after all. Maybe everything I'm teaching them is completely irrelevant to the new society we appear to be moving into. Isn't celebrity gossip and mean-spirited talk the common currency, replacing constructive debate and the critical thinking I hold in such high regard. And this is why I wrote the last two paragraphs to a story that has not found a home and likely will not find a home at any publication I currently know of:
When the students depart, handing you their completed exams, some avert their eyes, sheepishly. Nearly all of them go out of the room with their heads down, looking into the shining oracle that beams more important data into their brains than you’ve ever given them. They scroll through Facebook updates, YouTube postings, dynamic pop-up ads, celebrity gossip. And you wonder if they’ve had it right all along, if they actually know more than you do. You wonder: is anything I’m teaching them really of value in this world after all?"
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
So, while we're on the subject of film...well, in this case, it might be more aptly defined as "media-related interests," I just posted an editorial on the new USA program, "Fairly Legal", which debuts next week. You can read the whole posting here. And in the meantime, here is a paragraph excerpt:
"Let’s talk about USA’s new program Fairly Legal. It reveals something significant about our culture, something we should be more attune to. Of course, it takes a crack at the supersaturated law profession, from which ridiculous cases inevitably precipitate. And this precipitate matter is what “fairly legal” is supposed to be about. However, it’s not really about the cases because they merely form a chaotic swirl around the central character and become a vehicle for her determinedly charming quirkiness. Important to note, too, is that the program is also offering an alternative to the nation’s surfeit of lawyers. So, instead of another lawyer, we are offered a mediator, one in stiletto heels, pencil skirts, and (I would wager) false eyelashes. She is a woman very likely just a nudge over 100 pounds, which makes her a potential flight risk on windy days."
I start teaching again next week, and I have, as my German professor Klaus J. used to say, "ein volles Program." Seven courses at two different institutions. I'm building my World Lit online class right now. This morning, I finished constructing a test on the Popol Vuh. I also have a column deadline at the end of the week, so really, I should be reviewing books right now. Where did this month go, exactly?
Hopefully, later this week, my review of the exhibition SCALE, currently on view at SPACE Gallery in Pittsburgh's cultural district, will appear in City Paper. I feel like I wrote it a long time ago. It's an interesting show, definitely worth seeing but closes February 6th.
Soon, the February/March issue of American Craft should be available. There, a review of the exhibition DIY: A Revolution in Craft, currently on view at the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh's Strip District, will appear.
Now that I think of it...whatever happened to Liza Lou, who was Smithsonian American Art Museum's darling when I worked there back in the early 00's? I know she earned a MacArthur in 2002, but there hasn't been anything since 2008. Maybe she is working on something big....I know the beading can be tedious....we shall see, we shall see....in the meantime, let's reminisce:
168 square feet, glass beads
Friday, January 7, 2011
I have to say that I miss watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet movies. My favorite was A Very Long Engagement, which appeared in 2004. Sometimes I show the movie's opening scenes to my students to demonstrate how absolutely horrible trench warfare was, even when mortar fire was not falling. The scene during which soldiers are blowing off each other's thumbs (so they might be sent home) at the minute-strike of a chiming pocket watch usually gets an expression of shocked disgust from the audience. Of course, it follows that none of the soldiers who did this got sent home, but were instead court marshaled and condemned to fend for themselves in the no-man's land between enemy trenches. Ooo...ooo...even though I think Jean-Pierre Jeunet is worth his weight in large gold ingots, let us not forget that A Very Long Engagement was actually based on a novel by the so-called "Graham Green of France," namely the late author, screenwriter, translator, and director Sébastien Japrisot.
Yes! Let's not forget the writers in this world. Without them, where would so many movies come from? And I'm talking screen plays, too of course, not just novels. I've heard that writers get the shaft pretty frequently in Hollywood. A cousin, who wrote the TV series Moonlight (no, no, I am not related to Stephanie whatever-her-name is. No, this is a small-screen show about a vampire detective whose wife turned him in the 1950s and now he is in love with a blonde cop. Sort of like Angel, but slightly different. Yeah? Well okay, that show.) Anyway, Trevor once said that even though he lived in Hollywood, he tries not to be a douchebag. Very telling comment there. From all accounts, the studios gave him a pretty rough time. But I see Moonlight has gone into syndication of SyFy, so hopefully he's making a bit of money from his work.
Anyway, I like to geek out of period films. Yes, I'm one of those kinds of girls. I love the costumes, the set, the antiques, the mystery. While I have to say I enjoyed the new True Grit (Rooster is much darker here, less heroically hokey, more realistic...sorry, John. If it's any consolation, Michael still prefers your performance to Bridges') and all it's genuinely flawed characters (except for the new Lucky Ned Pepper, who was too strange to have lived so long on the lam), I really, really dug looking around at all the pretty set pieces. Maybe no one else pays attention to the color of the shades on the gas lamps or the coarseness on the ticking of the wool coats, but I do. There's beauty and believability in those details. I know the movie makers know it, but sometimes we forget.
I mean, look at these stills (from A Very Long Engagement), for example. Look at the wide mirrored walls, the pressed glass cruet set, the woman's hat piled high with fabric flowers, and tell me that this wasn't a gorgeous period to be living in (freakin' scary yes, but away from the Western fronts, the cities are literally filled with functional artwork...almost everywhere). We live in the Age of Plastic, which to me, is dull by comparison. But look, look, look at this crystal and silver magnificence here:
This is why I go to auctions. To see this stuff, which has gone the way of the Dodo, I'm very sorry to say. Still, it lives on in Europe...it lives on in the everyday life of Germans, at least. Parisians, too. I know it does only because I saw it. They use glasses, real glasses. They serve their coffee cups on silver trays with little wrapped sugar cubes that I ate like candy.
But also, there is this. As opposed to the opulence of the cafe above, of life outside war, outside prison, there is this grim scene. Grim but also magnificent. And Marion Cotillard in her quiet, anguished sensuality, wears it well. A kind of wayward Magdelene. (And if only I could find a picture of her weapon, which was somehow rigged to her corset and stockings...fantastic!).
Thursday, January 6, 2011
“You have no worries,” the nurse practitioner said warmly, passing the last pink triplicate form over for Becca to sign. Becca looked at it for a moment before the woman hastened her on, “Just a formality. Consent and all.”
“But I don’t consent to this,” said Becca, looking up at the woman, whose starched white coat gave the impression that she was a doctor. “I was told I had to.”
“No, that’s right,” the woman said, nodding and then looking down at another sheet of paper. “What you’re signing there is a consent for payment coverage. This means you won’t have to pay for the procedure.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Well, you can pay for the procedure out of pocket, but I don’t think you want to do that when the system will pay for it.”
“No, I meant, do I have to go through with this?”
“Well, by law you have to. And really, thinking in compassionate terms, I don’t see why you wouldn’t. The child will never be able to live a normal life. And, frankly, Ms. Mehl, you can’t delay much longer without the procedure being inhumane. You’re at 22 weeks. Quite honestly, you should have seen a doctor sooner. As I said, by law, this has to be done when test results come back positive, like yours have. So, if you’ll sign the papers, we’ll get this finished up.”
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
"....David’s consciousness, his memory—whatever he had become now that he was in this new observer’s vantage point—was unsure of his own capabilities. He was doubtful of his capacity for movement, but, by concentrated force of will, was able to catch up to and stay with the body. It was already in the garage by the time David got there, already putting the car into reverse and backing out. When David drew close enough to the driver’s side window, the body’s elemental magnetism pulled him towards it with such force that he was sucked in, through a filter of glass and fabric, which ruffled his atomic structure and gave him a weak electric charge. Inside, David saw his spinal column glowing with a phenomenal light, and on each vertebra, there was the faintest suggestion of a human face, of a screaming human face. The sound they made was piercing, above any auditory range perceptible to humans. It subdued him instantly and the rest of the ride became a velvety, but irretrievable darkness.
The car—Roger’s car, which sped along Route 30 and down 15 towards Frederick, Maryland—awoke masses of roosting birds with the piercing acoustic dissonance emitted by the spiritual core of its solitary human passenger. The next day, more than two dozen birds were found dead beneath their nighttime perches. The discovery was interpreted by authorities as a confirmation that the West Nile Virus was indeed spreading north."
-- from The Davidian Odyssey
Sunday, January 2, 2011
I'll admit I've been watching Twilight Zone reruns late into the night on the Syfy network, and I had a nightmare about "Talkie Tina" before I woke up this morning. *shuddering* Is this where Chuckie came from, I wonder?
So, the most important news: At Gently Read Literature, a review of Jim Meirose's Crossing the Trestle, a collection of short fiction published by Cleveland-based Burning River Press, is live. Read the review here. Meirose's book is wonderful, filled with carefully considered portraits and strong symbolism. You can buy Meirose's book directly at the Burning River storefront.
In the meantime, an excerpt from the review (referencing the story "Stellazine and the Mudpies"):
"The title character is a lovable misanthrope, an aging woman, not friendless but ecstatically cynical, who is stuck inside a dilapidated gas station off an interstate that facilitates the high-speed disregard of what her store offers (although it should be mentioned that Stellazine gets quite a few customers over the course of the story). The woman creates a physical manifestation of her disdain in the form of small tarts apparently filled with mud, which she sells to the unwitting and easily persuaded."
Q: "What are you doing New Yeee-ar's...New Yeeee-ar's Eve?"
A: Well, for our part, we worked, hiked, and cooked. C'est ca:
Nope, I absolutely cannot fit one more appliance on my counter.
Mmmm.....cornbread out of the oven.