July 4, 2012 Leave a comment
Protagonists at large
May 27, 2012 2 Comments
Dear Carla Fran,
I saw Wicked tonight at a theater with my Mom. A dragon with neon eyes glowered down from the upper part of the stage where I watched the surtitles with my dad when he took me to operas as a kid. (Have I told you that we went to operas a lot? One of the kids’ dads would prep a group of us music-nerds for each opera by arranging themed evenings where we’d talk about the plot over a period-piece dinner, after which we’d watch the movie version from start to finish. When we it was time for Die Fledermaus, we had fake beer and duck. The host offered me the duck’s heart, explaining that at the time it was considered an honor. His older daughter was a model, and thought we were losers.)
The model-daughter made me feel pretty lame about enjoying those dinners as much as I did, and I remember trying to tone down the enthusiasm whenever I remembered she was there. Not unrelatedly, there’s still a version of me that regrets loving musicals as much as I do. Sometimes I even manage to convince myself that I don’t, that I find criticisms of the genre true, and that it is uniformly mawkish, overwrought, unnatural, bourgeois, obvious, sentimental.
You can convince yourself you’re over something, but you can’t always convince the people you love. My mom, for instance. Thanks for the ticket, mom! To my dismay, Mr. Millicent has discovered that whenever I’m moved by a bit of story, my legs and arms break out in goosebumps. (I know this at some level, it’s part of why I gravitate toward jeans and long sleeves.) These days, when we sit down to watch Scrubs reruns, there’s the totally predictable moment when the music goes soft and Something Moving happens. I watch with a steely eye, but lately Mr. Millicent has taken to hitching up my pajama legs. Without fail, the uncool goosebumps bear silent witness against me and my claims to a more discerning taste.
When it comes to musicals, I know I’ve never been able to fool you, and one of the beautiful things about our space here is how has been not even having to try. Your love of the thing and your writing about the thing has given me permission—hell, monkey bars, a trampoline, a language—to have one musical-loving face instead of two, one of which scorns them for the maudlin qualities you’ve given us a way to prize. It’s thanks to you that I have a way of thinking, of putting words to a reaction I’d consigned to hair follicles. I’ve had fewer faces since I’ve known you, and there’s no way to measure that relief.
Anyway, about Wicked.
I spent tonight awash in goosebumps. Like I’ve said, it’s hard to trust them, because they’re just stupidly easy to manipulate. I know they’re wrong sometimes in the way sentimentalism is wrong when it goes unchecked. If I think over and through them I can see the flaws. I can note that the speaking-animals-going-mute subplot is underdeveloped in Wicked. That it’s an awfully easy way to make Elphaba good and the Wizard ungood because there are no counterarguments. Elphaba’s clearly right, everyone else is clearly wrong, and as moral stances go, this one manages to evoke a spectrum of arguments that apply to vegetarianism and the Civil Rights Movement without ever really committing. Fiero’s change from party-boy to activist feels thin. I had to look away during the love scene between Elphaba and Fiero out of embarrassment both for its excess and for the weird logistics that go into singing incredibly loud and not particularly good lyrics directly into someone’s face. Talk about sentimentalism going unchecked—I couldn’t take it. Every time I tried I started suffocating from discomfort.
All that’s true, and if someone asked me what I thought I could say those things and I wouldn’t be lying. Not exactly. But the other, meatier truth is that I got goosebumps from the crazy deep-green set of Emerald City, from the astonishing Victorian steampunk costumes that made almost every chorus scene an improvement on Annie Leibovitz’s Vogue covers. From the jarring shade of Elphaba’s skin, from the intense physical comedy of Glinda’s makeover—her first kind act. And from the incredible singing that musicals always have, but maybe I’ve just been away long enough that it blew my socks off to hear it live.
Speaking of singing, I still like opera, and pretty much the way I did as a kid: it makes silly utterances majestic and makes sexuality consumable as art (cf. Carmen). It gives amazing music a veneer of story that will make it go down easier if you can’t be there for the music alone. But I rarely get (or got) goosebumps at the opera because opera librettos are almost magically vapid, the stories tend to be both melodramatic and staid, and the singing, while technically brilliant, doesn’t quite square with my sense of how music and human emotion intersect. (That said, I love The Marriage of Figaro to death, even if it leaves me bumpless, because of its unflagging sense of humor.)
What forced me wrap my coat around my bumpy legs tonight in an effort to calm them down was that Wicked was a story about friendship. I had no idea. I’d listened to the soundtrack several times because my sister loves it. She and I can holler our hearts out to Disney songs and musicals for hours when we’re at home; it’s one of our favorite games and it’s so habitual that I sometimes forget to treasure it. Still, when she told me how great it was a part of me suspected that her goosebumps, like mine, were too easily roused. I just didn’t expect much out of Wicked. I’d been so sure Glinda would be torn down in order to raise Elphaba up in a dumb contrarian way that I didn’t think it was worth seeing. (Whyyy do I think I’m automatically smarter than the story? Or that my taste has any reason to be better than my sister’s, or anyone else’s, when I have ample evidence to the contrary? Unconscious Hubris, meet humility.)
I guess I just didn’t expect the friendship to survive the musical. I didn’t expect to see an incredibly smart portrayal of female friendship to the near-exclusion of other more traditional musical relationships. I didn’t expect it to honor both witches’ motivations and choices, or to saddle them both with losses. Most of all, I didn’t expect the story to refuse to make either friend learn a lesson.
But it did, and their leave-taking from each other is a really raw ode to friendship, and goddamn if it didn’t make me think about how lucky I’ve been, and how you’ve changed me for good.
May 13, 2012 1 Comment
I am the Queen of Cheap Rent, but on Friday I’m buying a house. Because I want to. Because I can. Because, I realized recently, I’ve moved every one or two years (sometimes more than once a year) for the last fourteen years.
This isn’t a new impulse–over the years there were times when I wanted a house, or could have purchased one. But those impulses were usually driven by my dissatisfaction with a crappy apartment, and I was always somewhere I knew I would leave, or wanted to leave. Now I’ve found a place where I’m comfortable, not too far from my family, and can see the building blocks of a happy life in reach. So I am packing up my things, and next Monday movers will come to carry my belongings out of my little apartment in the sky. As I pack, I’m thinking about all the places I lived before.
I probably don’t remember the name because I’ve blocked it out. I chose my college because I didn’t want too big of a bill, but I didn’t want to be close enough that I had to live at home. After moving all my things into the room, my parents were about to get in the van and drive home when my Mom grabbed me and howled. “Rachel!” She sobbed into my shoulder until I pushed her into the van, amused at her emotional breakdown. Didn’t she know what this day signified? That I was standing on the brink of the rest of my life, and the rest of my life was awesome?
I shared my room with a sophomore who informed me she’d had two roommates the prior year, then had the room to herself for months. That should have been my red flag, but I was naive. This girl showered once a week, every Saturday night, then worked an eight-hour shift at Taco Bell on Sunday. She watched TV constantly, and even watched videotaped shows on VHS during commercial breaks of shows she watched live. When I moved out on Halloween weekend, it felt like I’d been there for eternity. In the fresh air of my new room, all my stuff smelled. I spent the afternoon in the laundry room washing the stench out of my comforter and all my clothes.
This was right across the street. The rooms were smaller, the food was better, and almost everyone was a freshman. I had chosen my new roommate based on the fact that she smiled and talked and the room was clean and charmingly decorated. Red flag #2: if someone says “I’m a nice person,” they’re not. I spent the rest of the year living an episode of Gossip Girl against my will.
This was a house owned by the Catholic church on campus. After the first year of college, I was more than ready to move home and go to a commuter school, but my parents convinced me to try this out. I had plenty of space and nice roommates. We were the last set of girls to live in the house, because, according to the pastor of the church, “Girls are too much trouble.” Thus I can thank the Catholic Church for simultaneously saving my undergraduate education and reducing me and my friends to a problem to be brushed aside and forgotten.
Junior year I lived with a couple of my Antioch House roomies in an apartment. I volunteered to take the room with the washer and dryer in order to save on rent, and insisted that I didn’t mind it at all. I was awakened by a squeaking bed in the apartment above precisely at 9am every Saturday and 11pm every Wednesday, in addition to unscheduled episodes throughout the week. A friend from class came over to hang out one Friday night and looked up in horror when the squeaking commenced. “What is that?” she asked. “Oh, that’s just my neighbor on her exercise trampoline.” I’d made up a little story to tell myself so I wouldn’t go completely insane from listening to these people boink like bunnies. Finally, one Saturday morning in March, I’d had it. I rolled over and pounded the wall once, so hard I left a bruise on the side of my hand. The squeaking stopped. If I’d known I would have done that much sooner.
My roommate Julie and I found this spacious one-bedroom off campus. We made the living room her bedroom and the dining room the living room. The plan was to live cheaply first semester and have the place all to myself second semester. Instead, a friend from class, Misti, moved in when Julie left. This apartment had a lovely view of a nature preserve. It was quiet and I had good roommates. It was an oasis after three years of shitty living arrangements. Misti and I threw a graduation party in the clubhouse. A month later, I packed up my Corolla and drove away in tears.
I spent a year back with my family while I saved money and applied to grad school. It was not so fun after having a taste of independence, but now I look back fondly. Because of the large age difference between me and my youngest sister, there are only five years in the history of our family that all six of of lived together in the same house. This was one of them. For me, it was a year of anticipation.
At the end of summer we packed up the van once again and I trekked to my new home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Hackberry Place was a little cul-de-sac of concrete-block apartment buildings. The rent was dirt cheap and many of my classmates lived there as well. I tried to pay less attention to the roaches and the landlord’s utter refusal to fix anything that was broken, and more attention to the nice things, like the pretty glass doorknobs and the ceiling fan from Target my friend John installed for me. The only heat/AC came from a wall unit in the bedroom, so I often left the front and back door open in order to get the air circulating. There was no screen doors, of course, so occasionally a stray cat would wander in. I stayed for two years.
This cabin is on the grounds of a twenty-seven acre estate donated to the University of Alabama English department by Hudson Strode, a professor who sold a lot of books in the mid-twentieth century. The cabin itself was nothing to get excited about–one room, a bathroom, a kitchen–but the grounds were lovely and the main house was an odd, uncurated museum of decay. Sometimes the house was occupied by visiting professors; other times it was empty for me to use as I wished. I lived in the cabin for two years. I rode out Hurricane Katrina with a book and a bottle of wine, huddled on the bathroom floor, wishing I’d gone to stay at a friend’s. I invited friends over for New Year’s Eve 2006, and I don’t think there will ever be another NYE that fun. After two years, I graduated. I had my twenty-seventh birthday party in the house that May. At the time, I didn’t know if I would stay in Tuscaloosa for another year or not–I was hatching a plan to use the money from my summer job to move to Chicago. Regardless of my uncertainty, the party was the perfect send-off and the culmination of four years of community. Three weeks later, my friend Sarah helped me pack boxes to store in the living room of the house. My Mom was in the hospital, on the verge of death at age forty-seven. I rushed to see her before I left for three weeks of teaching in Rhode Island.
My Mom was tough and she survived. But she would have to have chemo and radiation, so I postponed the Chicago plan and moved with my family into their new house. I was there about four weeks before I started getting antsy. I drove to Tuscaloosa to get my stuff, came home and searched the ads for a part-time job. I ended up with a full-time job, offered a week before school started, teaching at a university ninety minutes away. The boxes went back in the car. I found a place to live over the weekend.
Without a doubt, this was my most spacious apartment of all time. I didn’t have much of anything so it seemed very empty. It was a five-minute drive from my building on campus. There were trees and when the leaves fell off the trees I had a pretty view of a man-made lake. The neighbors above me played games I referred to as “Apartment Bowling” and “Throw an 8-Year-Old on the Floor.” One person would let her enormous dog run down the stairs on an extendable leash. The sound was as crazy-making as the boinking bunnies of junior year.
I stayed in this apartment for almost two years. For the first year, I would go back home every other weekend to take my mom to chemo. I would often go weeks at a time without speaking to anyone who wasn’t a student or a family member. I was so shocked and consumed by my mother’s illness that it was useless to try to make new friends. My home and my life were a vacuum.
The second year was better. I made some friends. I did not renew my lease.
My friend Lisa was teaching in Australia that summer, so I stored all my stuff in her garage and house sat. It was a sweet little three-bedroom ranch. I mowed the lawn and dreamed of homeownership. I sat in on a summer English class and tried to find a new job somewhere else. I learned that I’d been passed over for a high school teaching job in favor of one of my own college professors. I despaired.
North Street is a charming little brick road near campus where professors live. Except for the last couple blocks, where I lived with the undergraduates and rednecks. I rented half a house, thinking that would save me from the perils of living in a complex. My parents came to help me move. My Dad and I did the heavy lifting while my mother, weak but stubborn, pushed lighter things to the edge of the moving van. My new neighbor, who lived with his girlfriend, knocked on my door three times in the first two days, and kept me up at night with the war-rumbles of his video games. There was an enormous pit bull chained to the house next door. My Mom declared that my sister was not allowed to visit me.
The day after I moved in, I drove to campus to hand in my employment contract. My inner voice was screaming at me not to do it. But I thought of my little apartment, my twelve-month lease. How else would I pay for it? There was no other job for me in this town.
I loved my one-mile walk to work. One mile in the other direction was a quaint downtown, with one good coffee shop and a couple good bars. In the winter, I left every three weekends for yoga teacher training in Chicago. School ended in May. I spent June sending job applications, put my stuff in storage, and flew off to summer teaching in California.
I’d always regretted not doing AmeriCorps when I was younger, and in August I found myself in Louisville, looking for a place to rent with my little stipend. I met a soon-to-be coworker and we tried to find a place to share. It didn’t work out. After three days of searching, I had an appointment to look at a little attic apartment. It was Friday at 5:00. If this is not the one, I vowed, I’m not moving here.
It was the one. On the day I moved in, I declared this my last rental. “When I move out of this apartment it will be because I am buying property.” I pictured myself still here in six or seven years. Not ideal. Not the worst.
I had money woes but I felt so free. I loved and was proud of the work I was doing. My little apartment in the sky was at the nexus of the best parts of town. I was finally used to my Mom having cancer. I hoped she could visit to see my new place. She’d given up on chemo a few months prior, but I believed she could make it a couple more years.
I was wrong about that. Six months after I moved in, she died. Her dad died that winter too. Again, I lived in a vacuum. But this vacuum was different. I needed rest. I needed quiet. But while impending loss led me to desperation, loss behind me led to hope. Trees blossomed outside my window. I could only think of the future, of potential. I could only think how lucky I was to be alive.
Months passed and I thought about what I wanted. Sometimes it’s windy and my apartment sways. Sometimes I am awakened by squirrels running across the roof, mere feet from my face. Birds nest right outside my window and chirp so loudly that I think they’ve gotten into the building.
This is the last apartment on my list, because what I want is to be on the ground. In a week, I’m moving to a home that doesn’t have an expiration date. I bought furniture for the porch. I will have space for my mom’s loom, which I vaguely know how to use. I am going to grow tomatoes and zucchini in the yard. It’s painful to know that my mom will never be there with me, but I learned from her last years how precious it is to be alive, that there’s no reason to wait when there’s something you want. I get carried away thinking about renovation plans and what I’ll plant in the yard, and I stop myself. I never do all the things I plan. And the best things that happen are always the ones I never imagined.
March 6, 2012 2 Comments
The thing about migraines, when you have them almost every day, is that they tame you. You stop fighting, sometimes because you’re lazy, sometimes because migraine is its own reality. Like dreams, where whole timelines are born, complete with histories and memories, migraine is a feverish bright blue that believes that you will never be normal:
You will be hurt by the sun.
You will never regard an invitation from a friend as “fun,” but rather, something to be survived. Like drinking anything alcoholic. Like watching a good movie. Like catching up with someone on the phone.
Taking the bus is carsick torture. You sit with the back of your head pressed against the iron bar behind your seat, forcing your neck into the disgusting and sticky metal, hard, so that it gives you pressure, sensation, anything but the tangled muscles and nerves that are strangling your brain. Maybe you can loosen them. You think of an anecdote someone told once about their mother accidentally breaking her own foot with her hands while trying to stop a cramp. You know how it happens. You’ve never forgotten the time you went to the grocery store, with a migraine, and tried to replace your cart. You missed, and accidentally scraped your elbow against the grocery store’s brick exterior. You watched the blood start trickling down your arm and realized, amazed, that your headache was gone. You did a little dance by the carts. You’ve thought many times since about scraping your arm against something to stop a headache, but you doubt you could do it hard enough on the first try, and you don’t want to become a self-harmer. It seems a dangerous road. Anyway, you know you look a little crazy on the bus, with your head at a 90-degree angle to your neck, but migraine clubs your absolute self-consciousness into submission. You don’t care.
You will never be entertained, the migraine says. Ha! It knows you can’t watch or read anything too absorbing, too interesting, when a headache strikes. The excitement makes the headache worse. Instead, you’re condemned to reruns. They’re shows you like–The Golden Girls, Arrested Development, Peep Show, and Frasier is especially soothing–but you know the episodes by heart because you’ve listened to every single one, in the dark, more times than you want to count. You are deeply, deeply bored. Your brain is hungry. If it were a tiny animal it would be starving, with horrible food allergies to all its favorite things. It would eat oatmeal every day and rage quietly at its lot.
So, like a child sneaking candy at night, you read Twitter. Small Tic Tacs of information you can digest. That’s not true, of course, and the migraine knows it; it knows you’ll take everything far too seriously, it knows that you can be tempted into participation and dialogue, and it knows that all of that will only make it stronger.
So you stand on a high-wire, with never-ending doldrums on the one side, nauseating and redundant, and a forest of spikes on the other.
And your balance sucks.
Then the migraine leaves, and all your failures of imagination evaporate. Friends are opportunities, books are salvific, and television does things you never thought it could. You work! You produce! A future seems possible. You imagine a posterity of good conversations, of entertainments, of discussions and walks.
It’s easy to say that the second world is the real one, but when you get one day of it every two weeks, it gets harder and harder to believe that, if one is, say, Kansas and the other is Oz, it’s the good days, the migraine-free days, when the Wicked Witch is dead.
December 6, 2011 Leave a comment
Dear MCF readers,
Millicent’s fantastic essay has been nominated for the 3QD Prize in Politics and Social Science. It would be superswell if you took a minute to vote for it (it’s #40). The nominees make for fierce company, including Zunguzungu’s piece “The Grass is Closed” (#56).
And, in case you missed it, Millicent’s full essay is up over at The Awl, and is one hell of a read.
October 24, 2011 2 Comments
I’m happily reading the new Our Bodies Ourselves this week, and have the luck to also have a 1973 copy of OBOS to compare it to. So, pretty much, I am high on what happens when women get together to talk about health. I wish I was around 40 years ago at the start of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, described in the preface of the 1973 book under the heading “A GOOD STORY.”
In the begininning we called the group “the doctor’s group.” We had all experienced similar feelings of frustration and anger toward specific doctors and the medical maze in general, and initially wanted to do something about those doctors who were condescending, paternalistic, judgmental and non-informative. As we talked and shared our experiences with one another, we realized just how much we had to learn about our bodies. So we decided on summer project–to research those topics we felt were particularly pertinent to learning about our bodies, to discuss in the group what we had learned, then to write papers individually or in small groups of two or three, and finally to present the results in the fall as a course for women on women and their bodies.
As we developed the course we realized more and more that we were really capable of collecting, understanding, and evaluating medical information…the process of talking was as crucial as the facts themselves. Over time, the facts and feelings melted together in ways that touched us very deeply, and that is reflected in the changing titles of the course and then the book–from Women and Their Bodies to Women and Our Bodies to, finally, Our Bodies, Ourselves.
The honesty and eloquence of both editions are so swoon worthy–the articulation of confusion and paradox that you know arrives from a group of people thinking hard and digging to find words–for uttering in the first place, and showing the process of it. Amongst all the tropes (often perceived negatively) of women’s sharing circles (I know I have a huge file of uncool cliche’s in my head, even though it also sounds so damn nice), The Women’s Collective built this wonderful resource–its wonder lying in not only the facts, but in the gut-swinging honesty that it presents them in. In some ways, OBOS is like the best aunt in the world who has answers for everything, always lets you have sip of her wine, and respects you immensely. Like Tavi Gevinson’s blurb for the new editions says:
My brain was fist pumping the whole way through.
The reason I bring this all up is because I am also reading Jaclyn Friedman’s What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety. I’m only in chapter one, but danggummit, it’s wonderful! (Just like Yes Means Yes!). When I looked for it at my local bookstore, I was initially a smidge embarrassed, worried that the clerk would have to awkwardly walk with me over to the sex section, perhaps surrounded by Taschen books about boobs and penises. Maybe you are more brave than me, but sex and bookstores, it’s too much of a clash of the public and private. Maybe I can get over that after I read this book.
Maybe after we all read this book? So far, it’s like a great gift from the same wine-sharing Aunt that I have assigned to OBOS. It’s compassionate, well-written, insightful, stern, and really really understanding. The introduction takes head on the trepidation of reading such a book publicly. Nobody wants to be seen reading a sex guide, right? We all want to look that we have that shit in gear–no worries here–my engine is fine! But Friedman smartly takes on everybody, starting off with a quiz about attitudes and conceptions about sex, safety, and the personas we build around them. Her argument is that if the book has gotten into your hands, one way or another, you are ready to get to the nitty gritty about sex in your life, and sex in society. She promises big rewards, a map through the messiness of reality, and omits anything resembling a tip or a trick to better sex.
My favorite thing so far about the book is that while it looks like a regular paperback, it’s really a bit of a bootcamp. She asks things of you that the cool part of your brain wants to cringe at and reject (journaling every day, committing to the entire book), but she acknowledges your possible wonkiness, and then tells you to get over it. If the text ever leans sentimental or mushy, it also immediately proves how valid the act is. Friedman writes like a good teacher lectures. You trust her. You will do what she tells you to because she is not wasting your time.
At then end of the introduction, Friedman recommends reading the book with a group, both as a way to expand discussion, and as a way to keep up momentum as you move through the book. I bring this up for two reasons–I’m interested in being part of such a group, and I want as many people as possible to read this book. I’m not sure the blog is the right place to have a discussion–I’m all for documenting process, but perhaps it is too permanent of a forum for this? G-chat, Skype, plain old email…I’m interested. Or if you don’t join up here in whatever unknown form is out there (and fair warning, I don’t know how deep What You Really Really Want goes), consider starting a small discussion group with a few friends wherever you are. How nice would that be?
I am in the thrall of a giant crush on conversation. I promise there will be no speculums, unless you want to talk about that, too.
October 16, 2011 2 Comments
This is what happened in July 1670, when Roger L’Estrange, inveterate royalist and Licenser of the Press, was implementing his “crack-down against nonconformists,” trying to stop people from printing unlicensed work. (This was just after Puritan efforts at republicanism had failed, and Charles II had been restored to the monarchy.) The relevant portion is from the Calendar of State Papers Domestic 1670. As related in John Spurr’s England in the 1670s: “This Masquerading Age“:
“L’Estrange’s men raided John Streater’s printing-house with warrants to search and arrest suspects, but twenty people ‘fell into an uproar, and begin [sic] crying out that they were freeborn subjects, and not to be meddled with by such a warrant’ …. Intimidations and insinuations … were part and parcel of the political process.”
September 29, 2011 4 Comments
There’s a lot going on right now, but I think this will be to both of our possible delight. Via the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Disney is starting up a new Miss Marple take. From The Hollywood Reporter:
In March, the studio picked up the rights to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Now the studio has acquired an untitled project from screenwriting newcomer Ashley Bradley to be produced by Green Lantern co-scribe and TV creator Marc Guggenheim
Plot details are being kept under wraps, but the project revolves around a young woman who finds out she is the descendant of a legendary detective and is forced to take up the sleuthing mantle.
They are ageing her down and setting her in contemporary times. This could be sacrilege. It could be truly terrible. The idea of changing her age give me the hives, but then I think of a Harriet the Spy type kid who gets to be descended from the great dame, and it’s balm for the hives. It could be really great.
September 28, 2011 Leave a comment
Please please join The Hairpin Costume Drama Club because it is going to be so much fun, and full of taffetas and all astonishments and champagne and crying. I am so excited about this thing! We’re starting with The Duchess of Duke Street.
While you’re there, also read Millicent’s How to React to a Blemish in the 17th Century, for Gentlewomen only.
You could also watch Bramwell, which is a nice convergence of cold sores and corsets.
PS: There will be Bramwell, Hairpinners, just you wait.