9.29.2011

Octet

Pop Quiz #1

A woman waited in a subway terminal. She hadn't talked to anyone that day beyond a job interview and a curt exchange between herself and a barista.

A second woman approached her. She was missing teeth and she pulled up her pant leg to show multiple layers of jeans. She showed where her waistband was cinched with a rubber band. "I must weigh one hundred pounds," she said.

She said she needed to get to a shelter downtown (the downtown towers a splotch on the horizon); she said she didn't have enough for train fare so she was going to walk.

The first gave her two dollars. The woman asked, "Oh, will it hurt your family?" (a ridiculous question). Then she asked if the woman had any food -- anything, even gum. Nothing, not gum. She said she was so hungry she would eat a person -- she said she wouldn't normally eat a person. She wheedled until the first woman produced breath mints, warning her that they were strong.

She helped her open the tin, it had a weird catch on it, and the second woman suggested they both have one. They grabbed adjacent white wafers between thumb and forefinger.

The woman wheezed, "this is terrible!" She meant it, but she was laughing. "You must give these to people you are trying to get rid of." She said they tasted like Vick's vapo rub.

Then the first woman pulled out a five. The other refused it. "You sure?" "No!" And took it. She walked down to the street saying she was going to buy a hot dog -- two hot dogs. The first woman could taste, across the roof of her mouth, the remnant of the woman's smoky acrid smell.

Q. What if the second woman is lying?

9.28.2011

I was having a hard time breathing, which is not super uncommon when one gains 6,000 ft in elevation, but my particular anaerobia was caused more by anxiety. Driving through the Colorado Rockies with my mom and our friend Terry, I was in yelling distance of the time when I was going to have to get on my bike and ride between 60 and 100 miles each day over mountain passes and through arid wastes.

One time, I cried on my bicycle for 20 out of 78 miles as I rode with my mom around Copper Triangle, triple bypass of climbs, because my butt hurt so bad, it was taking so long, and the wind was in my face. I was about to get a week of that shit.

Mom had to have a root canal two days before our bike trip. Terry and I tried to remind her to take her pain medicine every few hours so the effects wouldn't wear off. A few times she forgot to take her pills, and when pressed she admitted that she had a second heartbeat in her mouth.

The truly terrifying thing about going with Mom and Terry is not their sky-high athleticism -- at 24 years old and having spent considerable time training (I did my homework), I hold my own in the muscles/cardiovascular department -- it's that these women don't fucking quit. Riding with them meant that I couldn't suddenly get a head case and hitch a ride on the sag wagon; it meant that regardless of how much time it took us, regardless how many hours of sitting on cruelly hard and narrow ass-apparati and breathing in scents of roadkill, we were going to ride into camp on our little bicycles.

One of the passes we rode over was where, almost exactly a year ago, I had helped spread the ashes of a friend of mine that died. I thought about him as we climbed 13 miles of dirt road to the summit (average speed: 4 mph). I have dreams off-and-on that he is alive, and nobody's even that impressed because the whole death thing was just a misunderstanding, but in the most recent one, the image of him talking to me was overlaid by my memory of his ashes floating down the small creek where he used to camp.

Up there the sun warms you like a campfire. The side of me not sun-blasted is cold from the sparse air and chill wind, while sunny side is just about dying of heat. A bit like how Mercury feels, I'd guess.

Getting to the top of that pass, I made sure to dodge holes and tried to stay clear of accordion-style divots or places where there was too much loose dirt. I plugged in my tunes and measured my pedal strokes to Gorrilaz and Fleet Foxes. I talked to Mom, stayed behind her, and fought not to think about how long it was taking me.

And it will sound simplistic -- if you have better advice, more complex, instructive, or hopeful, follow that instead -- but all that's for it, I think, is to keep your head down and just keep pedaling. At this point, I don't know what else to do.

No Wind

While a woman chatted incoherently to her friend, I looked out the window where the foundations of once-leveled buildings just sat there. Their cracked and tilted surfaces were covered in large puddles, and two gulls made perfect circles in one of them.

9.23.2011

one where I tell you what to do

I'm gripping my pencil too tight, like I'm afraid the little fucker's going to get away. My drawing teacher wants us to pick the line we want and make it, no sketching allowed. She's got a tricycle for us up front with some croquet mallets and balls for extra complication. And I'm making indents on my drawing pad, digging my B pencil into its guts, trying to make the right line.

She keeps telling the class, "Draw what you see not what you know." She explains it this way:

if you give a small child a can to draw, he will draw something like this:

He starts with the body of the can, the rectangle, and then he knows that the can has a circular top and bottom. He can't see those circles from his vantage point, but he knows they are there. Drawing shapes and their relationships as they actually appear is what makes a drawing look realistic and three dimensional. But it's difficult because our brains ignore much of what we see so that we don't get overloaded. For the sake of efficiency we know can as two circles and a rectangle.


A step further. What we know, often times, is something we've never seen. We think in some generalities, symbols, stereotypes even if we've never encountered a particular to match. For example, this is how most people would draw a house:

I've never seen a two-story structure with a huge door, one window, and an isosceles triangle for a roof. But I know this as "house" because it is my symbol for house.

People are very good at picking out small differences in faces. As a painter, getting an expression right is beyond my skill -- this portrait turned out to be of a mild half-wit who's just sat in a puddle, okay -- because every stinking millimeter of line can change it in a profound way. But the viewer sees it instantly, we are very attuned to those details.

And still, I submit that we have a hard time seeing people. I want to talk about the way women see other women, especially. (There's a Picasso painting at the Chicago Art Institute in which the nude woman's breasts, crotch and ass are all visible while she reclines on the sofa. It seemed telling. The way men see women is terrifying and I try not to think about it.)

The symbol for beauty's most important aspect is large eyes accented by larger eyelashes. As important is that the eyes are hedged in on all sides by a dark solid line. The nose doesn't draw any attention to itself; it's best, actually, if only nostrils are present. This is the image by which I will judge every woman and myself.

The first time I think I really saw a person was one of the times I was looking through my book of National Geographic portraits. The photos were lovely in themselves because of color and form and did not depend upon the beauty of the people in them. When I came to a black-and-white picture of a woman, dark skin, heavy and topless (saggy boobs), decorated in a costume of dead silver fish. She had hold of a little boy's hand and she was scowling like nothing I had ever seen. She didn't look anything like my symbol of beauty, and yet I looked at her for a long time. She was interesting. It looked like she had a story and life and emotion.

I decided she was thrilling to look at -- and that, I figured, made her beautiful -- once I actually saw her instead of making quick notes about how closely she matched the women on the magazine racks.

And I'm wondering, folks, if you even know what you look like. Or if billions of dollars are spent, expectations for the future arranged, and standards set for friends and boyfriends based on how closely you can get your face to look like my silly drawing. Go look in the mirror and try to tell what it is that lets your friends know you from strangers. See genetics and your parents and your acne scars. And the real shape of your eyes and the lines by your mouth and maybe a booger that you should take care of.

Draw what you see, not what you know.

9.21.2011

a letter to Leonard Oakland

Bonjour, Leonard!

I work at the Boys and Girls Club of Bellevue. I help run a drop-out prevention program for high school students. I overheard one of my students say, "I hate this damn book."

I ignored her. I am used to students complaining. I have developed a lovely skill of ignoring complaints. She continued, "this book is about some byronic hero or some shit. This is crap."

I immediately thought of Lermontov's "Hero of Our Time". I asked her what book she was reading. She confirmed my suspicion.

I helped her with her homework. She continued to describe the book as crap until the moment she walked away from me.

I remembered you saying that you didn't like Anna Karenina the first time you read it. You said as you became older the novel changed. As time went on you developed a profound respect for the story.

I knew one day that would make sense.

Today it did. I loved "A Hero of Our Time". It was one of the most challenging and rewarding novels I read in college. But for my student, (who really doesn't give a shit) it was nothing.

I'm glad you introduced the idea to me that the meaning of books change with age/time. I didn't take offense to her response. I just smiled and told her to try reading it again in a few years. She is a bright, stubborn kid.

I am well. I eat popcorn (without butter) every night before bed. I hope to attend Seattle Pacific's Masters in Teaching program next fall. I am still dating Jon Fox.Thank you for being a great professor.

I hope you are well.

a (avec une accent grave) plus tard,
Annie Dugas

River City Extension

I got turned onto the band River City Extension by NPR's podcast All Songs Considered. Bob talks to Jay Sweet, the guy who lines up the bands for the Newport Folk Festival. Jay was at SXSW and came upon a really crowded venue. The gathered, 300 or so, were belting the words to all the songs this band (River City Extension)was playing. Jay had never heard of them before.

When time was up for their set, the fans would not physically let River City leave the stage. The stage manager is pointing to his watch, mouthing some words, and shrugging -- you guys have to get off of there. Another band coming up. So the drummer rips -- does not unscrew, rips -- the snare off the set, and they play down the stairway and out into the street. Everybody leaves with them.

That's my kind of crew. I imagine their average fan to be a late-twenties ruddy guy with a reddish beard, holding a lager, and wearing a green t-shirt. They sing their tunes with the enthusiasm of Mumford and Sons and with the anthemic quality of Five Iron Frenzy.

I've listened to their newest album, "The Unmistakable Man," and I liked the song "South for the Winter" first. The beginning part of the song is so much softer than the rest that I couldn't hear it through my car's speakers as I was driving down to Denver. By myself, night time, windows open. Then it builds all of a sudden to a very loud exclamation, "Sometimes all I want is a job and a God and a wife!" Amen, brother.

The album has a lot of that, musing, melancholy lyrics to upbeat, sometimes thrashing, music. And I've been attracted to songs like South for the Winter for a little while: songs like Best Coasts's "Boyfriend" and Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me." Bethany Cosentino sings, "The other girl is not like me; she's prettier and skinnier. She has a college degree. I dropped out when I was 17." Or in the song "Goodbye", "I lost my job, I miss my mom, I wish my cat could talk."

Remarkably similar in content to "Boyfriend" is Swift's song, but where we can enjoy Cosentino's ironic jabs (she knows she's making a poor case for being this guy's girlfriend), I'm like, "Taylor, honey" (and put my arm around her and pull her to the side) when Swift sings, "She wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts [...] She wears high-heels, I wear sneakers" in this pristine voice of sincerity. Sweety, you are wasting your ardor. He won't even notice you unless you change everything about yourself and become a sex kitten. Better to throw on some sweats and become an angry blogger.

But I like the song anyway because (here comes my point (which is an aside to my greater point, which is that I like River City Extension)) in our culture of flipp'n Facebook everybody takes great care to manage their image, they smile in all their pictures with all their friends in all their travels (if they're going one route) or they're all made up and their breasts have their own profiles and they soften their photos's edges (if they're going another), but they are all screaming I am so happy! And desirable! And my life is so fun! Successful! The PICTURE of SUCCESS!

And here are some artists who have the guts to sing about wanting what we all want and feeling what I'm guessing we all feel sometimes, but we aren't suppose to show it because that would be poor image management.

Unmistakable Man is beer-fused and ranting. Some songs about God: "Another death upon a mountain top / Our lives are nothing but some real shit luck / Remember when we used to give a fuck? / Well I don’t think the Lord understands." and "I wonder if I still own a Bible / If my fingerprints still sit on that page / The one about love, and why it’s so patient / And why I have lost it with age."

And lovers: "I am naked in the dark / with my eyelids shining like flashlights / in the midst of / our dirty playtime / and for the meantime / we are echos of spring time." I play that over and over. Listen to it, it makes you want to cheer.

A review I read puts the album's major themes as, "a lamentation for deceased friends, a realization of the need to treasure loved ones, and a recognition of the futility of a life lived without faith." This one is up my alley -- rip me off that snare drum!

9.13.2011

Raw Materials



Mitch and I were in the process of missing the eleven p.m. train. It was a Saturday, and he had told me specifically that morning that he did not want "to be in the city forever." The "L" was simply not going to get to the Metra station in time, and there was nothing we could do about it.

I had The New Yorker out on my lap, reading, in an attempt to make the best of things. In it there was an article about a Dutch engineer/sculptor who makes huge mobile "beach animals" out of PVC pipe and zip ties. Ultimately, he wants them to be able to, powered by wind, shovel sand from the ocean shallows up onto the beach dunes. Holland is very low-lying and it seems in danger of massive flooding if the water rises just slightly. For now the Strandbeests just trot around.

I keep thinking about something Theo Jansen, their sculptor and creator, said:

"The walking Strandbeest is a body snatcher. It charms people and then uses them so they can't do anything else but follow, and I am the worst victim, you could say. All the time I think about them. Always I have a new plan, but then it is corrected by the requirements of the tubes. They dictate to me what to do. At the end of my working day, I am almost always depressed. Mine is not a straight path like an engineer's, it's not A to B. I make a very curly road just by the restrictions of goals and materials. A real engineer would probably solve the problem differently, maybe make an aluminum robot with motor and electric sensors and all that. But the solutions of engineers are often much alike, because human brains are much alike. Everything we think can in principle be thought by someone else. The real ideas, as evolution shows, come about by chance. Reality is very creative. Maybe that is why the Stranbeests appear to be alive, and charm us. The Strandbeests themselves have let me make them."


I'm not a fan of motivational posters. Slogans, "Attitude is everything," "Everything happens for a reason," etc, strike me as willful delusions undertaken to make the world more friendly and coherent. That said, I also do not prefer to be absolutely fatalistic or to admit only bleak beliefs(which, at least, do not smell of sentimentality) into my personal canon because I do not want to be depressed and petrified in earnest -- I only want to seem that way cause it's edgy.

Jansen's quote, therefore, has worked itself into a nice little corner in my brain. What he's saying makes sense to me, and I had not thought about it before. He talks about the relationship between him and his surroundings, the raw materials that he has to work with. For him, it is his subject's limitations that enable him to make something fresh and astounding. Whimsical, even. A leap in creativity and innovation precisely because he does not have materials that are exactly suitable to his needs.

Extended, he could be talking for me. I have a supportive family, wonderful friends, degrees in English and Physics, and some talent and a love for art, but little direction and less experience. In true form, I could say that I've been stupid and naive or that I've been lied to about the nature of reality or that the world is cruel and there's not a place for me in it. (Don't let those edgy people convince you that there's not sentimentality in being pessimistic.) Or I could see those as my raw materials and be thankful that they insure me a life that looks different than the standard career launch and race to acquire things of escalating price. It says to me that creativity thrives when possibilities are obstructed.

I just hope that this damn beest will let me make it.



*Top photo by Lena Herzog

bear's teeth.

Well, hello blog. It has been some time. My life has been consumed with hunting for apartments, scouring for cheap furniture, and trying to convince my parents that this will be the year i will figure out what i am going to do with my life. I found a great coffee table at Goodwill for $3.99. I painted it lavender yesterday at Jon Fox's apartment. Yesterday was a wonderfully unremarkable day.

The fun things:

-I listen to NPR everyday during my 45 minute commute to work. Between the bland stories of republican and democrat politicians fighting over who can create more jobs one can catch lovely stories. For example, this lady in Juno, Alaska found her dog's alive, but petrified body clamped between the teeth of a grizzly bear. Without giving much thought to the predicament, she punched the bear in the face. The bear was so stunned; it let her dog go in peace.

-Jon and I read excerpts from Demetri Martin's book, This is a Book. http://www.amazon.com/This-Book-Demetri-Martin/dp/0446539708
read it. it will make you laugh.

-I am taking my kids to the Sounder's game on Saturday.

-I eat popcorn every night before bed.

-I've been watching a BBC television series, The Hour. It is about the BBC and conspiracy and treason and censorship. It is great.

The bad things:

-I have to fill out rebates and make dentist appointments. I've never been good about paying attention to detail.

-Some of the students I work with could not identify nor define the "war on terror." Shit, only about half of them knew what happened on 9/11. They clapped when Bin Laden died though.

-The east coast is flooding.

The interesting things:

-The last day of summer camp one of my students climbed a tree and pooped off a branch in front of a group of kids.

-I have a higher degree than my boss. He is paid twice as much as me.


I'm sorry to disappoint you. None of this is particularly interesting or thought provoking. I hope to write more soon. sigh.

Sometimes I wish I could punch all of my bad things in the face and get my dog back... if you know what I mean.

9.11.2011

Where am I?

An all-women panel, the Chicago comedy big wigs -- Second City main stage, instructors, performers, stage directors representing the four major comedy theaters in a comedy-heavy town -- told their seminar-ees, "Only you can give away your power." "You are never the victim; it is on you." "You do not have to make yourself suffer." "All you have to do is have as much fun as possible."

A trip on the "L" red line later, north, me leaning against the clear plastic partition, feet spread wide and braced against the tire-treaded metal trying not to lurch into the other passengers or onto the flimsy train doors, Julie Kimball-Bryant and I got to her Bryn Mawr apartment and to Mikey and Mitch.

Dinner conversation after some free wine tasting at a local... (What would you call that? It sold liquor, but it was not a liquor store per se. They sell liquor in gas stations and grocery stores here. A corner store? Yes. Buy yourself some beer, wine, whiskey and snapples.) corner store was about the relation of college to subsequent employment. Three of the four of us were and are unemployed.

Here's the thing: Whitworth, an excellent liberal art college with highly-qualified personable professors, an education that we four would not take back or undo for some other education, is ever-rising in cost and is generally producing graduates that do not have specified skills required for jobs. My education of mind and heart is not currently making me any money.

The cost of undergraduate education is rising while the value of its degrees (relative to the competitive edge it gives over other job applicants) is falling. The economy is slumped compared to when our parents made their start in life-after-ed. And the baby boomers are going into retirement, expecting returns on their social security and specials at Denny's. My dad to me (all the time): you know who's going to have to pay for all this government spending? Points finger at me.

And it was most definitely my fault that I majored in the obscure combination of English and Physics. I was lead by the belief in education for its own sake, enlightenment, the betterment of personhood. I was against the philistine notion of studying something to make me wealthy or comfortable later; I insisted on taking the courses that I found the most interesting. My parents always told me that I could do whatever I put my mind to.

And I can see where those comedy women's advice would be useful. Believing that nothing really bad or out of one's control can happen would make you a more daring person. Its practicality maybe justifies it, but I still wonder whether the statement is true. (Does anybody care about the fucking truth anymore?) If there is no excuse for feeling like a victim and no lemons that simply won't do as lemonade.

A reason they sent young men to reclaim the beaches at Normandy in World War II was the fact that the men, because they were young, did not believe they could die. So the beach was captured -- points for the belief in personal immortality -- but the young men did die and it was awful, and shouldn't it matter if a belief, regardless of the results it gets, is based in reality or not?

Mostly I feel stuck between the admonishments of educators, parents, and professionals in the meat of their lives, careers, successes and my empty email inbox and voice mail after dozens of sent resumes and job applications. It's not what I expected, and I feel lost in it.

9.05.2011

Adama's Question


Commander Adama and his ship are going into retirement. The fleet, it seems, doesn't need them anymore, the new technology and the younger officers have made these two obsolete. And Adama is old -- he's known as "old laser face" due to a long life of acne scarring -- and the ship is a barely-space-worthy bucket. Besides, the colonies are experiencing a time of peace. The cylons haven't tried to wipe out humanity in 40 years. At his ship's decommissioning, Adama begins his to-be-expected speech before abandoning his note cards to ask, "Is humanity worth saving?" He's not demanding it; he comes across as world-weary and tired, and he's wondering if perhaps the cylons have good reason for trying to kill us off.

As the show progresses, Adama's speech from that first episode kind of hangs in the background. Well-fleshed out characters commit acts of cowardice, choose to protect themselves at the expense of others, breach loyalties, become alcoholics, despair, and perform executions (with only 45,000 people left in existence), and, though culpable, I don't want to condemn them because I can't see myself doing better in their shoes.

For a sci-fi show, it's pretty Earth-bound (pun non intended). The ships are very industrial looking, their walls the color of soot; the sounds of boots on steel, pistol shots and lockers closing make up the sound effects; the camera moves around at eye level showing faces and conversations rather than the wide panning of space.

Oh, I'm talking about Battlestar Galactica, by the way, a concept with a bag of TV-series attempts with mixed results. The Riverside West crew watched the 2004-09 one in its entirety. I'm continuing the watching-sci-fi-shows-on-Netflix tradition by going through Star Trek: The Next Generation in my unemployed free time.

Star Trek is much more airy. Their guns shoot orange lasers. Large windows are a part of every room and show the Windows screensaver. People dissolve into light in one place to reappear in another.

Despite these differences, the pilot episodes confront the same question.

The very powerful and ornery being, Q, challenges the newly-minted Enterprise. He stops them mid sub-space voyage and says that due to humanity's history he can no longer let them exist. In this and subsequent episodes, Captain Picard and other crew members prove their good natures to Q. Picard insists that though humans have a sordid past, they have changed for the better.

Humanity's evolution to a peaceful morally-viable race is a condition of the Next Generation series. They explore vast areas with no move to conquer or control. They work and live without prejudice among lifeforms and cultures very different from their own. Their power does not corrupt them. Humanity is worth saving because humanity has become worthy.

I found a remarkable tie-in between Star Trek and Galactica a couple of episodes ago (season 2, episode 9). Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, refuses to undergo dismantling (research, in hopes of being able to duplicate Data) by a unqualified scientist. Starfleet will not allow him to refuse because he is a machine. This is taken to court.

Whoopi Goldberg, as Ginan, warns the captain (who is Data's advocate) of a whole race of Datas in subjugation to humanity if the court rules Data as Federation property. In court, the JAG officer even calls Data a toaster -- a slur against Cylons in BSG.

Cylons were created by humans and given artificial intelligence; they evolved into a mechanized race and rebelled. (Slavery, it seems, doesn't go over well with robots either.) One of the central conflicts in BSG is whether or not Cylons should have the same rights as humans. Certain models of cylons look and move exactly like people; they build relationships, are self aware and have emotions. Data, while short on emotions, also looks like a person and he is a distinct character to the viewer. No one watching episode 9 of season 2 is saying, "Yeah, he's just some fancy box of bolts."

And while BSG takes 75 episodes to work it out, Star Trek takes care of it in one. The court grants Data's right to choose, and in doing so, protects the rights of sentient lifeforms everywhere. (Q smiles upon them.) While the folks in BSG struggle to get people to stop rioting.

And in the end of Battlestar, the narrative strand the writers emphasize is the "humans v robots" one. They seem to be cautioning viewers against the mistreatment of automatons in the hopes of preventing a future cylon war. They abandoned their themes of justice and human identity to briefly touch on the possibility that increases in technology are not always good.

I'm borderline obsessed with the way these shows treat the justification of humanity. Star Trek acknowledges that we, in the twenty first century, were pretty bad, but it can get away with imposing only vague judgment upon us because in the twenty fourth century, the answer to Adama's question is an easy yes.

And BSG lets the question slide.

Maybe Q is in the wrong televisional universe.