Wednesday, March 31, 2010

secret listener.

One thing I like about Chicago is that when the weather warms up, people hang out of their houses while on the phone.

On my way home tonight I walked past a man sitting on his patio with a white plastic cup in one hand and his phone in the other. I smiled at him and he waved two fingers at me, while saying, "You gotta eat your vegetables... no, but vegetables are important, fruits too, at least three servings a day, okay?" He must be talking to his kid, I thought. A divorced man telling his daughter to eat what her mother puts in front of her so she can grow big and strong. Or maybe talking to his dad, who won't eat the canned green beans at the home because he thinks they're trying to poison him. I wouldn't eat that stuff either, have you seen what canned green beans look like? Yech.

I overheard a man several stories up saying, "Now you know, she gonna be her own woman, there ain't nothin you can say to her..." about a daughter? A sister? An old flame?

Perhaps cell phones have made the snippets of one-sided conversations ubiquitous. But tonight was an interesting night, to walk past people and let their words float down to me, as they tarried in the warm falling night, to welcome spring, in the midst of their talk.

Friday, March 26, 2010

You eat yet?

There is a hunger that you feel when you are young, and lunchtime won't come fast enough, and you know you have in your lunchbox an egg salad sandwich, or smoked turkey and Swiss, or even a Thermos full of macaroni and cheese or Spaghetti-Os, and a pudding cup, and all you want is for Mrs. Fletcher to stop talking about Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea or whoever, and dismiss you to the cafeteria.

There is a hunger of shirt thin at the elbows and shoulders, and denim dungarees with the cuffs achingly too short, that cruelly expose your ankles. You feel this hunger right before you eat your breakfast, a small bowl of rice with milk and sugar, but no butter because there is no money for butter, and you know that lunch is a baloney sandwich and dinner will be soup. Again.

There is a hunger that makes your stomach cramp the way it does when its hot outside, that distracts you from what's being said to you, that takes small whiffs of fresh bread and contorts your body with pain when you smell them, that makes you mean and ignorant and always irritable.

There is a hunger when you know that if you have dinner tonight it means you won't be able to fit into that gorgeous black silk dress. So you make this your "ballerina's buffet" night: two wheat thins--saltines are too salty, and you might retain the water--a cup of regular coffee, black, and three cigarettes.

There is a hunger when you sit down at a table and peruse the menu, and choose the dish you've been looking forward to all day. You forgo appetizers, even the salad, so that your appetite will be as machete-sharp as it is when the warm humid air and acid jazz of the restaurant enveloped you when the wind of the street blew you inside. When your server sets that plate of food down in front of you--a steaming white pizza with fresh herbs, or a pulled pork sandwich with black-eyed peas and collards, or a bamboo platter adorned with slabs of fish and a tidy rosette of fresh wasabi--your eyes tear and your mouth waters, and you know that as good as the food really is, it will be made even better by the fact that you are so hungry.

There is a hunger when you sit across from someone on your third date, and you can't listen to what he is saying because you are too distracted thinking about the taste of his mouth.

There is a hunger of after having spent the day sweaty and silent, sunning at the beach, sipping iced tea with mint and reading and writing and listening to the sound of the surf, you are clean and changed and sitting in a patio ready to devour a plate of black bean dip and fresh tortilla chips that are still warm and smell like lime and salt.

On Sunday I was hungry for Corn Tings. On Tuesday I was hungry for potatoes. Yesterday I was hungry for protein, and even surprised myself with the occasional craving for animal flesh, which these days, is pretty few and far between.

But today. Ah, today. Today, I am hungry for the feel of comfortable and supportive flip-flops between my toes, and a comfortable skirt, and skin that is warm from having been in the sun and breeze, and the quiet stillness of vacation, and the feel of the ring on his finger, and the smell of the ocean, and the having done it already and resting together, and wrapping our legs around each other, and licking poi off my fingers, or off his fingers, and having the freshest fish I've ever eaten in my life.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Please put your name on your paper.

I read a really interesting article in this week's Newsweek about literary mash-ups, a review of a book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. The book is an amalgam of quotations from various sources, split into chapters dealing with various subjects, including art, doubt, even reality TV. The reviewer has a really interesting experience with the book, and with the giant footnote section at its back that was included at the behest of the publishers' attorneys. The review ends by citing the words of Helene Hegemann, who recently published her first novel at 17, and evidently lifted sections of it from another source without crediting the previous author. I imagine a lily-white young woman with high cheekbones, straight hair cut into an austere, blunt angle at her chin, and piercing blue eyes. She shrugs pointy shoulders that jut out of the collar of a black sweater and sighs. "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity."

Aside from parroting Ecclesiastes, the idea really gave me something to think about. I think I'd be furious if someone lifted segments, or the entirety, of my work, and then passed it off as her own. We throw students out of my school for that kind of behavior. The creative process has real significance, and to absorb the fruits of someone's creativity just because it suits your own purpose seems deeply disrespectful.

But really? I mean, I'm also thinking of visual artists who've taken that which has already been created and cut and pasted and thrown so many things into a blender and made things new. Of course, I can't think of any artists who do this, but that's just because I'm woefully undereducated about art history. I do know that collage is a hugely popular form.

And I'm thinking of old Sister Sledge licks that got sampled by Will Smith, and the scads of other musicians who've bitten from those before them to make the next dance single, pop album, Grammy-winning album of the year. Sampling is practically par for the course in so many other forms, so why is it so outrageous on the page?

I'm thinking that maybe it's not. I read that David Shields didn't want to footnote his sources and the lawyers made him; according to the reviewer, the book is better for their addition. It allows the reader to have a deeper, richer experience, knowing both the originality of these words as well as experiencing their innovation in Shields's hands. I think this might be okay with me. I think it is the right thing to say, "This brilliant piece I made wouldn't exist without these pieces I took from the following artists." I know that that's kind of impossible to do on the radio. You'll never hear a Kanye West song start, "The bass line for this song came from a James Brown song, and the melody was artfully borrowed from Diana Ross and the Supremes." It's just not possible. But there are always liner notes, right? People still read liner notes, and what gets written there still has some value.

I'm also thinking of a performance I saw while I was in undergrad, a performance two men did of a mashup between Naked Lunch and John Barth's The End of the Road. (Anyone who reads this in edwdoyle's Performing the 50's class with me? You remember this performance?) In the context of the class, I was having an awful time with Naked Lunch. I found it to be foul, gratuitous and incomprehensible. And John Barth was just kind of bland. Flavorless. But this performance, part of which was given in the dark, leaving me only to listen to the actors and imagine what they were doing, cracked both texts wide open for me. The kind of mashup that happened in that class was the thing I needed to know what kind of art I was experiencing.

No one, as far as I know, has ever taken something I made and tried to assert that it was theirs, and if they did I'd be fighting mad. But I'd have to look at the thing that they made with what was mine too. Maybe all art has the magic of theatre, in that once you create it, it ceases to exist, or at least, ceases to exist as YOURS, and now it belongs to the cast, the class, the reader, the people. There are plenty of legalists who would argue otherwise. But I don't know.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Chicago Public School Story

This video features one of my students this semester, Mary Reid, and her two sons. Mary's a strong leader and a strong writer, and when she sent this video to our class, I thought it would be of interest to those of you who read this, whether in Chicago or elsewhere. Enjoy. Discuss. Comment on youtube. Do what you can to change The System.

Monday, March 8, 2010

do you promise?

Last night my sweetheart and I sat down to write our vows. We decided to write a common one, a vow that we both create, but that is singular, so that what we promise to each other is more or less identical. This isn't the first time we've written anything together. About a month and a half ago we wrote a story together that we recently performed about our coming wedding and our continuing relationship, and what role, if any, past lovers have in both those things. It was a fun story to tell, and it was at times, incredibly difficult to write. But I enjoyed it. Based on that experience, I thought that while writing a vow would certainly be emotionally charged, it would also be fun. So fun is not the word to describe our experience last night.

I think I'm learning some really interesting things based on last night's experience. It was important to both of us to discuss the nature of the artist's life in our vow. As we discussed what we needed the other to promise us, what we needed to hear and what we needed to say, I discovered something. I'm pretty puzzled still, doing quite a bit of sorting.

So the conversation dissolved into one of what it means to be an artist. When is someone an artist, when are they not, and what role does this shifting (if it shifts) identity have in our marriage?

Okay. So I knew I was a girl at an early age. I knew that I had a vagina and I liked it, and I learned that some of the social behaviors of girl I was really fond of (skirts, cooking, the occasional lipstick and pair of high heels) and others I could toss aside. (always being on the bottom, having babies--I almost never had cheerleader or gymnastics fantasies. I did however, fantasize about being a model. And an astronaut.) There are still plenty of "woman" behaviors and ideas I have to sort through, but I'm working on it. I also knew at an early age that I was black too, although wrestling with what that means is a continual process. I learned that I was straight, and I believe that I was born that way.

But I didn't know that I was an artist, didn't know that that is who I was, until maybe seven or eight years ago. I had always gravitated toward creative things--elementary forensics, music, dance, theatre--but never thought of myself as an artist until I considered that the absence of these things, of a demonstration of creativity, in my life made me unhappy. I believe that I was born an artist as much as I was born black or female (despite the shifting sands of these labels), and while I am just beginning to learn what it means, I believe it is as permanent and indelible a part of me as a blood type or a finger print.

But what if you don't believe that? What if you believe that you're only an artist when you're making a thing? Or thinking of making a thing? What if you're an artist when you're working on bringing story into the world, but when you're working on making the health care system a bit tidier and easier to navigate, you're just a software consultant? What if you're an artist when you consider the way the sky is reflected in Lake Michigan when the sun is setting in the west, but when you're doing your taxes you're just a motorist on Lakeshore Drive? Do you have to earn your artist's self by performing as one? Is it you that measures yourself as an artist? Is it others? Is it the world?

These questions don't go too far for me, because, like I said, I believe the quality of artist is indelible. I believe that when I am too busy teaching to write I am still an artist, and I believe that when my sweetheart is too busy trying to earn a living to write he is still an artist. But he does not believe this. To tell it true, for as long as I have known him he has struggled to identify as an artist. He introduces himself, most recently, as a software consultant and not as a writer. I've never understood why; his mind considers the most esoteric and nuanced qualities of expression, communication, identity and engagement. While it's true that he works slowly, I do not think that his pace is what dictates his identity. I don't know why he doesn't own this part of himself as keenly as others; and keenly is a bit of a misnomer, because he gets twitchy about claiming most parts of himself. He doesn't like to be tied down into claims of who he is and is not, and he really doesn't like to be lumped in with others.

I say all of these things to say that last night he asked me to promise him that I would love him even if he chose never to be an artist again. Now, an artist according to whom? If I define artist as he does, as someone making things and thinking about art, and he chooses never to make another thing in his life, can I promise to keep loving him, certainly. But it gets trickier if I use my own definition of artist. His self as an artist is as real and permanent as his self as an Asian man: can I promise to love him even if he's not an artist is like asking can I promise to love him if he suddenly becomes white. Or black. It is wholly inconceivable to me; I don't know what my sweetheart looks like as a white man, and I don't know what he looks like as a non-artist. If he never made a thing again with any ambition, I'd love him just as fully and powerfully as I do today. But if he walked away from his artist's life and was happy with it... well, frankly I don't know how those two things can exist in the same sentence. I don't know how he can depart from his artist's life and be happy.

It occurs to me today that maybe this is the business of marriage. Here's what I mean: I think that I am genuinely scared of what it means to promise this man, whom I know with my whole self is the right one for me, that I will promise to love him if he denies his artist's self, whether it makes him happy or not. It scares me because I don't know who that man will be; I never met this man when he was in denial of his artist's self, and I don't know how hold he was, because he's known that he's an artist for a loooooong time. I see him struggle with his process now, and I see that it makes him unhappy: I see how badly he wants to quit working for a while so he can focus on projects which have been left unattended for months, even years. I see the quiet envy in his eyes when people write the books and tell the stories he wants to be telling. I see how hungry the artist in him is, and I cannot imagine what will have to come true in our lives, for him to abandon that part of himself entirely, and be happy with that choice. Can that thing be good, that thing that brings him the absence of artist in himself, and still makes him happy? How is it even possible?

On top of which, and this is the part where I get to sound like a selfish prat, what will happen to me if this is the man he becomes? What if while he has left the artist behind, I am still a teacher/writer? What if I am the one who's into the flaky ethereal business of making things, and I'm married to my father, or my cousin, or any of the pre-med-pre-law-consultant-type boys that my alma mater was clogged with, and my husband doesn't think I'm the creative shit anymore? If, in walking away from his own artist's self, will he continue to love my artist's self? Will he support how badly I need to tell story if he suddenly doesn't need to tell story anymore? I fear feeling permission to be myself, my writer/teacher/yoga enthusiast-with-ambitions-of-learning-to-teach self, if I one day wind up married to a software consultant/VP of Information Systems/CIO who just doesn't have time for the part of himself that used to create, and thus won't love the part of me that creates.

So maybe this is the business of marriage. Maybe this is why it's so fucking scary. Marrying someone isn't scary, or isn't just scary, because you could get soaked and lose half your shit if you divorce, or because you risk looking like a fool to your friends and family if it doesn't work out. It's because you're promising to love someone who will change. And I'm not talking about saddlebag change or Rogaine change. Inevitably, they'll be different in a year than they are today, and in ten years different than they were a year ago. And you're promising to love and live with and do life with them, regardless of who they become. Yes, there are limits: if your honey suddenly becomes someone who needs to steal from you to feed a gambling debt, or decides they like abusing their partner, or worse, your children, then all bets are off. But in marrying someone you're promising to love what they have carted to your table on their back, and you're promising to do your part to walk beside them if the path of their life takes them off the path they're on.

I am not locked in a crisis of relationship. But this is scary, and it's scary for a lot of reasons. I want to promise my sweetheart whatever he needs me to, in order to walk into life with me without hesitation or reservation; and I want him to be able to do the same for me. Maybe I need him to promise me that no matter who he becomes, (to say nothing of who I become, because I'll be changing as he is changing) that he will choose to grow closer to me, and that even if he denies his future artist that is clearly, CLEARLY so elemental to his current self, that he will still love my future artist, such as she is.

If you've made it this far, pat yourself on the back, because this feels complicated. I want to hear from people about this, similar struggle, questions, comments. Marrying readers, married readers, partnered readers, single readers, artist readers. Holla back.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Insert Friend Request Here

I used to know this woman. Let's call her Jean. Jean and I carried on as friends do; when one of us wanted to see or speak to the other, we'd ring on the phone, and have a conversation. Usually, I would try and steer this convo toward face time: phone is just not my favorite medium to engage with people. I so often interrupt, or don't accurately express what I'm thinking. I can't see the other person's body language, and know what they're communicating underneath their words. So, when our schedule's permitted, we'd sit for coffee or a meal, or bring our loved ones with it and have a couple date or two.

Then, not so long ago, I learned a lot about Jean, chiefly, that we have fundamentally different ways of perceiving and engaging in friendship. I believe in a certain level of honesty that can and should exist among friends with whom I am safe. I believe I should be able to, and I would like to be able to, tell my closest friends when they've said something off-color, out of line, out of character, even downright hurtful, and probe at it, to discover if there's an element of discord between the two of us, or within her, or within me. (Pronouns are no accident here. Let it be known that in my friendships with men, I seldom enjoy the safety that permits me this kind of honesty. Let it also be known that my friendships with men are considerably less prone to miscommunication, maybe because the stakes are lower. I've never pulled at that thread.) This is how I believe friendship between two old and dear and close friends should be. This is what I hope and expect from my friends, and this is what I deliver to them.

It has recently occurred to me that not everyone wants this kind of "conscious friendship." For instance, Jean does not ever, ever want to be told that she's hurt or offended someone, not even by her friend and in a spirit of love. She would rather that her friends assume the best about her, that whatever misstep, or even transgression, she made, was wholly unintentional, and to blow it off and let it go. She would rather assume the best of her friends, and have them assume the best of her, and when they fail to deliver, she'd like not to know about it.

This was a fundamental change in the fabric of our relationship for me, and no small one at that, because it felt in direct opposition to the natural way that I treated people that I loved. But I told her I would take that context and apply it to our friendship, such as it was.

I say "was" and not "is" because I learned this in what I think is accurately described as a knock-down drag out. In the course of ten rounds, I learned that Jean had been holding on to some pretty serious anger toward me, anger that hadn't allowed her to let go of some of my behavior that had really hurt her. Evidently, she couldn't treat me the way she wanted me to treat her. We left each other knowing where the other stood; her inhumanly busy schedule wouldn't permit her to make plans with me, but when she freed up time, she'd call and we'd connect for a cuppa.

We had this conversation six months ago, and we haven't spoken since.

I've never been the kind of person who actively cut people out of her life, who has said to someone, "don't call me," or "leave me alone," or "I'd rather not know you anymore." It always seemed like such a negatively final gesture, and what if you need something from that person in the future? Then there's the bridge you burned that you have to build from scratch all over. It probably also lies in the idea that I think I can change everyone, that if I'm enough of something that I can win them over or convince them that I'm right, and the discord is incredibly stressful for me. But for whatever reason, I don't just hang up on people, relationally. I know when I've been dumped, but I am rarely, if ever, the dumper. I prefer to let things drift into a nebulous state of unknowing that isn't actively detached but is situationally detached.

And yet, this drifty business with Jean grieves me.

I think this was a long time coming. We haven't had a lot in common for a long time, and we have distinctly different ideas of how to live, how to treat each other, what to prioritize. If friendship is about what you can give to other people, I was phoning it in with this broad for months. If friendship is about what other people give to you, I got squat from her. So I'm not at all surprised that this didn't work out.

But I find myself thinking a lot about Facebook lately, specifically as it relates to this human. Am I the only person alive without a Facebook page? Maybe in my ZIP code, eh? There is a whole facet of engagement I miss out on for not having plugged into that social networking site. Something that I learned about Jean when last we spoke, is that everyone else seemed to know what was happening in her life because she posted her life on Facebook. The absence we felt from each other, she didn't feel with others because she communicated with them through this tool. But somehow, I didn't know all the things they knew.

I don't feel bad about this at all. It's true that I'm missing out, but I'm really comfortable with that, and frankly, I like it better when my friends email or call me and say, "Hey Jess, I've been thinking of you. I want to see you. Do you want to see me? When can we get together?" I struggle with feeling like one of the gaggle who know the snapshot of your life that you post online.

(Yes, I am totally aware of the irony of saying that on a blog. I'm funny.)

But I wonder about what this woman's Facebook page looks like. I wonder who knows what about her life via photos and comments ("Jess is... glad that February is finally over... wondering how she'd look in a bikini after so many months in the gym...sorting herself out after a weekend of viewpoints and theatre games..."). I wonder if I'd engage her through this medium if I could, if I'd do the stealth thing that some people do and check blogs and pages, or block her and delete all her comments or whatever. Most of all, I wonder if this is the chief medium through which this woman, or my uncles, or my cousins, or you, maintains relationship, and not being a part of it means I don't get to know people.

Screw that. Maybe abstinence from social networking puts me at arm's length or farther from a number of people. Maybe wanting and choosing relationship with people who might "friend me", but who also call me, and take me for drinks, listen to my writing and tell me when it sucks, and let me come sit in their house and help them craft, and who visit me when I'm sick and who take yoga classes with me, maybe wanting and pursuing these things from my friends means my circle is small. I like active, engaged, conscious relationship. It's the way I like life. So seldom is it easy, but it's what I can do. It means the people who have really friended me are absolutely for real.