no one would riot for less

Film is a reflective medium; it’s only successful when it finds ways to tap into the public’s subconscious and provide some sort of mirror or escape.

I once read an article from 2008 that addressed this from a political standpoint: the Bush years, the inhumanity of extreme capitalism and There Will be Blood; the Obama campaign, hope and cute films full of possibility like Away We Go.

In that context, what does it mean that we now have critically acclaimed films like Blue Valentine and Like Crazy? Films that document falling head over heels for an idea and then getting (1) exhausted by working at it and/or (2) disillusioned. Similarly, what do our blockbusters mean now?

Almost two months ago, I worked an advance screening of Hugh Jackman’s Real Steel. In case you don’t know, it’s about robot boxing. Robot boxing. Despite coming into the film expecting to hate it and actually hating the first twenty minutes (the phrase “robot boxing” was actually used and I felt so disappointed and embarrassed for this screenplay’s writer), I liked it.

Real Steel is set somewhere between now and the 2020s. There are no flying cars, no Jetson-style homes (ps, I’m so glad we’ve all collectively realized that shit is just not ever happening), nothing to scare us or indicate that we’re too far from where we’ve been. But there are robots and almost no human emotion.

In the first pivotal scene, the robot that the story will revolve around, Atom, is described as being second-generation, while the robots that they have in the present are third and fourth generation. Second generation robots were dismissed as being “too human-like,” they’re used as sparring robots and, consequently, are made to withstand hits.

This second generation robot saves the life of the main character, a little boy. In a sense of obligation to his hero, the boy cleans him up and connects with him. He decides to enter the robot into boxing matches, despite everyone telling him that the robot is old and a piece of junk. But he doesn’t listen, and Atom is thrown into matches in the only place that will take him: “The Zoo.” This is a bacchanal, junkyard of robots run by people who still exhibit human pleasures: girls and boys, boys and boys, and girls and girls hang off each other, drink beer and yell and make bets while Atom fights.

It’s a Disney movie, so of course the robot wins and keeps winning, and this is where you can see the world that these people are living in.

Robot boxing (oh, that phrase) is the new American basketball: it’s popular and profitable and the fighters are unreal—literally unreal, because they’re made out of steel. That’s where the title comes in—the “World Champion” robot, a robot described as “the champion of this universe, and any known and unknown” is named Zeus and is tons and tons of steel.

He was created by an international hipster and is owned by what looks like a Kardashian. They run around in an extravagant penthouse suite filled with even more Kardashians and indistinguishable blondes.

Everyone glorifies the seemingly indestructible and recoils at the human. In fact, the mortality of human beings makes them insignificant; everyone invests in their money-making robots, not people—which is why a robot made to reflect human emotions is discarded. Who wants to be any part of that?

When Atom faces his big-stakes-patented-Disney-challenge he gets three rounds with Zeus and three rounds to teach us a lesson. First he survives when he shouldn’t, he gets back up when no one thinks he can and finally, when he loses his ability to operate on his own, Hugh Jackman steps in to control him in a “shadow-mode” where the robot can only mimic the movements of somebody else. Whether the robot wins or loses, it’s only as good as the human operating it—and never better than that.

In watching the final scenes, I couldn’t help but think of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” and feel hopeful. We are the ones that are indestructible and this is a nice reminder.

where I go, when I go there

If you follow the curve of the next two blocks, you’ll find rusted out American cars, tree-lined streets, guitar playing neighbors and little boys digging for China but getting distracted by automatic sprinklers before they can get there.

At least, on Sundays you will.

At least, on this Sunday you would have.

Count the swings you pass and see if they are as numerous as the colors on the trees.

Try to remember the name of that German artist when you pass the red house and why it reminds you of him.

Contemplate stealing your neighbor’s red roses, but leave them behind (always leave them behind).

Open Jane Candia Coleman’s collection of poetry on the American West and write down the first thing you see.

I closed the doors and left them…

Bureaus, chairs, a good iron stove.

But roses? Scarlet bergamot?

The blue spikes of rosemary?

Leave those quick and lovely children?

So I brought them…seeds, slips, roots

wrapped against weather, nurtured

in my apron pocket.

No one will say I must abandon them

to lighten the load.

I will disappoint the thieves,

impress the Indians with holy madness

for I touch them like rosary,

repeat their names and know with each

a day, a moment gladly spent.

And each day’s march has precedent

for Mormons brought the seeds

of sunflowers to mark their way,

stout wives in wagons flinging gold behind,

and now the whole trail’s yellow,

firmly rooted in fragility.

Make a mental note to leave a trail of gold wherever you go and to remember those days and moments gladly spent.

bad reputation

Like everyone else, I have done my fair share of bad things. I have spoken badly about people, I have shared secrets that were not my own, and I have no need to hide any of it—any of my humanity—because the same feelings that have sometimes led me to do bad, have led me to do good, too.

When I was in the third grade, Mrs. Leiker, my 19-month pregnant teacher (I went to a Catholic school and I swear my teachers were always pregnant), pulled the three quietest kids to the front of the room and screamed: “THESE are my favorite students.” I guess we were being loud, I don’t remember. What I do remember is her fury and feeling like a bad kid because I hadn’t been chosen as a favorite. In retrospect, this moment explains the years I spent striving to be the perfect kid. But I can’t pretend like that urge to be the kid at the front of the room has vanished with age.

During that time, what I refer to as “That Time I Should Have Been Reading Harry Potter (Apparently),” I read Beverly Ann Donofrio’s memoir Riding in Cars with Boys. She begins her story in kindergarten, crying in front of her assigned cubby-hole because they were all marked with initials and the kids were making fun of hers. She was B.A.D. She was bad. She spends her life trying to make up for being B.A.D., only to end up pregnant at sixteen and spending the subsequent years seemingly negating all that work she did to be good.

Mrs. Leiker moved to a small town after that year, leaving a forwarding address and weird memories in her place. I only remember two of the three kids that were pulled to the front of the room: one was a girl I got my belly button pierced with in the back room of a salon when we were 18 and belatedly going through our Thirteen phase. The other was a dude who now spouts conspiracy theories and has somehow stressed himself out enough that he has lost a majority of his hair.

And the rest is pointless because you can’t view things through a black and white lens when we live in a Technicolor world.

Even if you smoked in the girl’s locker room (twice, because you were bored and wanted to see what it felt like to be Rayann Graff instead of Angela Chase), skipped school at lunch time and showed up to (a majority of) your high school’s sporting events smelling like winter fresh gum and vodka, were you nice to people that day, without needing applause?

If you went to bed at 10 every night, made sure your skirt hit just below the tip of your longest fingers and always completed the required reading before class, did you do something for the benefit of someone else that week? Month?

I was always a mix of bad and good and I was never too afraid of hiding that because sometimes it’s not that complicated and even when it seems like you’ll never be able to start back at zero with anyone or anything, that’s never really the case. And if it is the case, then maybe you don’t need to be at zero, maybe you need to remember where you’ve been.

The supreme act of courage is that of forgiving ourselves.

That which I was not but could have been.

That which I would have done but did not do.

Can I find the fortitude to remember in truth,

to understand, to submit, to forgive

and to be free to move on in time?

But less "I don't care" and more "I care enough to move on"

Lovesong

I’m exactly who Paul McCartney was talking about when he said “some people want to fill the world with silly love songs.”

I want to be Toulouse-Lautrec swinging from the ceilings of the Moulin Rouge reminding everyone to love and be loved.

I want to be Galway Kinnel walking amongst “the ten thousand things scratched in time with such knowledge” that the wages of dying is love.

I want to karaoke to “Lovefool.”

I want to carry a golf-sized umbrella through the rain, with enough space for me and the unprepared mothers with babies standing underneath store awnings or trees.

I want to recite Pablo Neruda and Regie Cabico with the knowledge of someone who knows words aren’t enough, but that these words are the best.

I want to tell everyone I love them by giving my time, by answering my phone, by just eating the goddamn heels of the loaf of bread instead of skipping over it. I want to pay for the hot chocolate AND the extra whipped cream. And I want songs that remind me of all this.

Driving home from work, I caught the tail end of a song I hadn’t heard in years, which prompted me to pull out my iPod and reminisce with music from five years ago playing in the background. My premature nostalgia is one of the marks of being a part of a generation constantly confronted with how precarious and ephemeral everything here is. The other is an ambition to feel and see it all because it’s not going to last forever.

I turned on Dashboard Confessional – “searching just like anyone, I could be anyone” – and fell down the rabbit hole with Taking Back Sunday, laughing at the fact that almost every song they had was a breakup song or a song about someone lying to them and breaking their heart.  And then “This Photograph is Proof (I Know You Know)” shuffled on.

I remember the day I bought “Where You Want to Be.” My friend Kati and I had been dropped off at the mall to see a movie and we were wandering around before it started. We went into a now defunct CD store, whose name I can’t remember and who charged an outrageous amount for everything, and I saw the cover to this CD: a naked baby on a deserted road and thought it seemed like something I should own.

When I got home, I played it and “This Photograph is Proof” stood out to me. It wasn’t tinged with any of the dramatics of the other songs, it was honest and urgent. “I’ll wait ‘til you listen,” he sings, like someone with something important to say. Ending the verse with a sad: “And you’re noticing nothing again.” It’s written for an old band mate and an even older friend and it is their one, sincere love song.

“I know you know everything, I know you didn’t mean it,” he repeats in the chorus, ending the song with his voice see-sawing back and forth in a way that makes it sound like a lullaby. It’s an “I’m sorry” and an “I forgive you,” two alternative spellings of “I love you” and hearing it again made me so happy because it is Toulouse swinging from the ceiling, it is Paul McCartney going there again, it is Galway discovering the world through “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight.”

And it is so full of love, like we all are.

i’m always falling in love

Before leaving town yesterday afternoon I got a strange case of déjà vu standing in front of my friend’s door, which I always take to mean that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Saturday morning I slept in and then went to the farmer’s market where I picked up a loaf of zucchini chocolate bread for the first time in over a year, which seemed special in some way. I skipped over puddles and made faces at dogs before downing a pint-sized cup of complimentary rose-water lemonade and walking to grab a coffee, a spare chair and a table where I could enjoy a half hour of fiction.

A woman placed her things beside me and eventually we ended up in line at the same time, grabbing slices of lemon cakes and bagels and sharing details of our lives. She asked about my book and we talked about the now-defunct Borders and how there’s really no place like that around here anymore.

She told me she drove an hour to the Barnes and Noble on the plaza and it was nice but that she’s not there often enough for the drive to be convenient.

Maybe it’s that I’m on the precipice of another year, maybe it’s the fact that it’s the end of some things but when I get back to my seat that day I feel compelled to remember everything. So, like Zan McQuade I write it all down and for the next twelve hours I don’t stop.

I find pens in my car and take old ceremony programs from work and write it out in the five minute parking space in front of the dry cleaners. I keep one hand on the steering wheel and with the other I dangerously write down names as the next customer honks at me to hurry up and leave. I get the battery in the plastic one dollar watch from the antique store replaced for free and on the way out I run into my new dental hygienist—the one I share a history of small high schools and small towns with. I make a U-turn at the stoplight and head home for a twenty minute break where instead of reading what I’ve already written, I fill the margins with more and more notes.

Joshie has always told Post-Human Services staff to keep a diary, to remember who we were because every moment of our brains and synapses are rebuilt and rewired with maddening disregard for our personalities, so that each year, each month, each day we transform into a different person, an utterly unfaithful iteration of our original selves… – Super Sad True Love Story

__

After I finish my coffee and come to a stopping place in my book, I spend the rest of my Saturday morning running an errand I’ve set out to do for the past year. After I’ve finished the errand I see a sale sign and stop into the antique store I’ve passed countless times on 6th street and I buy an unused watch for one dollar. Normally, I would not have stopped but today is different.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The errand I ran involved an old pair of brown leather riding boots that needed to get re-heeled. I drive to the north side of Lawrence and unintentionally end up on a tour of the town.

The leather shop where I take my boots has a turquoise kayak in the yard, an old piano with keys that don’t move, piles and piles of bowling balls decorated with plastic jewels and paint that makes them seem like versions of the Earth if the Earth had been created by happy-go-lucky four year olds or Antoni Gaudi.

It takes the cobbler seconds to figure out what needs to be fixed on my boots and it takes me nearly half an hour to leave.

“Where are you from?” he asks and when I tell him “Kansas” in a general way he says “of course you’re a Kansas girl” with a smile. It’s the best compliment I’ve received in some time because I don’t think he would say the same to someone he suspected to be from Kansas City. I like his Kansas, I know it by heart.

I wonder if it’s the boots that have given me away—that I’d rather replace the leather around the soles where it’s too worn, that I’d prefer to keep an original, old pair of shoes with scuffs on the toes instead of buying something new and wearing them in.

Then I think that maybe it’s the way I take ownership of the entire state.

I suppose that it might be the way that I pivot from my spot, trying to see every inch of his workspace until he gives me permission to wander. Maybe he can tell by the way I pluck the strings of his mandolin and ask to hold his banjo, although I can’t play a single chord. Maybe it’s how I ask questions about the little girl in pictures playing what he refers to as a fiddle. Maybe he can tell by the way I absentmindedly finger the leather of the brown saddles in the back next to the rows of black motorcycle jackets waiting to be picked up. Or, maybe it’s that I ask questions and am happy to wait a half hour for the answers.

On the two second drive back into the heart of Lawrence, I pass a Southwestern style restaurant with outdoor seating and I can’t believe I had no idea that it existed. I almost want to believe that it has appeared just to surprise me, to show me more of what I haven’t seen but I know better. I’m seventeen again and I’m closing my eyes and wishing for more and more time like I don’t know that everything ends.

It’s not a war story, but it can sound like one.

To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not. -The Things They Carried

My fear of auld lang syne compels me to write everything before time runs away from me and transformations that television high school valedictorians have warned me of for years begin to take place.

“Look to your left. Now look to your right. Remember yourself exactly as you are today.”

completely addicted to that jagged little pill

“I’m conducting an informal survey: does it make you kind of uncomfortable when people refer to themselves as an artist?”

I posed this question to a friend the other day.

At the time I was wondering what was so unsettling to me about hearing someone proclaim themselves as a definite something.

The answer is simple and complicated because it’s jealousy, but jealousy on a variety of levels.

On the most basic level, I’m jealous of anyone who can proclaim themselves as something with one hundred percent certainty.

“I’m a toaster!”
The Brave Little Toaster
“I’m a Samantha!”
Samantha
“I’m an artist!”

I am certain of things for 90 seconds at a time, which is then immediately followed by weeks of doubt because how much do I really know? That’s where it gets complicated.

There is a lot of good in the uncertainty, though. There’s a lot of good in not knowing but just making a decision.

Austin Kleon wrote a note on “How to Steal Like an Artist” and the most relevant item on the list was this:

So much of success lies in trying, living and learning. I’m learning to embrace that. I love that this means that on some days you could be a ballerina, sailor, chef, artist, writer–anything.

and there you go

In May of last year Jody Rosen wrote a review of LCD Soundsystem’s “This is Happening,” commending James Murphy for “making his midlife crisis danceable.”

It’s true: the first time you hear “I Can Change” you will want to turn your speakers all the way to Spinal Tap eleven and pretend your living room is a dive bar in Brooklyn. Even at eleven, the music will not seem loud enough to accompany the steps of your exuberant dancing, seemingly matching Murphy’s tone.

The second time you listen to it, the music will seem quiet for a different reason. It will recede into the background and James Murphy’s voice will begin to sound lonely and desperate. You will hear the repeated chorus of “never change” and “I can change” and it will become uncomfortable.

If you are far enough away from the situation he sings about, the lines will just be uncomfortable because you don’t understand him. If you do understand him, you will want him to SHUT. THE. —-. UP.

But, also, keep singing?

Because it’s all so right and beautiful and if you change, then you change and if you don’t, you don’t need to yet.

At this point, you will have to move on to “Dance Yrself Clean” and do as instructed. It’s a process.

I need louder speakers.

And landslides.

And avalanches.

And floods that submerge the entire world then recede and reveal everything as cleaner and more beautiful than before. Aside from a few touch-ups, I wrote all of the above on February 25th for my creative nonfiction class. I was getting used to a slight change in lifestyle and saying goodbye to an old, sort-of neighbor who wouldn’t actually be leaving for months.

I’m weird with goodbyes. That is something that will never change.

And it’s weird and seems like almost too much to say that “Dance Yrself Clean” helped, but I really think it did. And now James Murphy is leaving music to do other things, focus on other aspects of his life that deserve to be developed and now I don’t need eight minute dance songs that make me whip my hair back and forth but I don’t want to say goodbye.

I don’t want to say goodbye to a band that is so able to link themselves to my memories. Like sneaking out for blueberry pancakes in the middle of the night and seeing sunrises from deserted parking lots with All My Friends.

And New York, I Love You and swearing I could hear the ending from my campsite. And even if I didn’t hear it then, getting that from Madison Square Garden at four in the afternoon from my living room while thinking about choosing sleep over delirious fans and synth beats in the early morning at Bonnaroo and knowing that no matter how many words I cram into this sentence I could never tell you how much that all means or what it all means or what it means to cry over a song or to pause it all before the big breakdown and write it all out because it might just be the goodbye or the change or something else that I haven’t quite figured out.

I wish I had more time to say thank you, but I’ll turn the music up and let it go.

I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life

It’s happening.

let’s be friends!

For the past few weeks I have been reading, writing and exploring the depths of my interests. Novel concept, right? Doing what I want to do.

This week I started a swimming class at the local aquatics center because I have never been a strong swimmer. I “learned” how to swim in Lake Michigan during a tornado warning in 1996. It was dark, ominous and the water was outrageously choppy.

My brothers caught on quickly and my dad had to continually coax me into the lake–a true feat of parenting considering my dramatic antics and cries of anguish as water went into my nose for the umpteenth time, effectively killing any desire I had to learn to swim.

Tornado sirens, immediately recognizable to all native Midwesterners, went off as we swam and we all jumped out of the water. My sister, busy practicing her already mastered breaststroke, kept swimming farther and farther away from the shore as the sirens went off. Later, we would learn that in a nervous panic her mind had been paralyzed in fear and she temporarily lost it. She thought that if she turned her body around she would immediately sink.

There was a dramatic rescue by the lifeguard in a little tugboat type thing and then we all sat around in the women’s shower area until it was safe to drive home.

Luckily, the tornado never came and instead there were just a few strong winds that scattered some tree branches and frightened a few children (in particular: me). The next year, my parents got divorced and we didn’t go back to the house in Michigan for the summer. That was lucky, too, because a tornado actually hit and it was terrible.

That fall, while filling out the customary grade school “What I Did This Summer” project, I decided this story wasn’t dramatic enough to share. I edited out the whole part about being out at Lake Michigan and made up an elaborate story about how my parents were watching Independence Day in a movie theater when a tornado swept through, tore the roof off and killed at least one patron (DRA-MATIC). I specifically remember writing “the Will Smith movie” and drawing a picture of a cinema house with horrified patrons looking up in shock as their roof floated away. My teacher, Mrs. Leiker, asked me if it was true and I confidently replied that of course it was true. This was my first taste of incendiary storytelling.

Later, I would write a Frosty the Snowman-esque comedy about a dancing scarecrow that would yield belly laughs from that same teacher and my class, after she asked me to share it with everyone. That is definitely when I learned to love my audience.

Other byproducts of that summer in Michigan include an inability to immediately recognize dramatic stories as dramatic stories and a fear of large bodies of water.

So, I’m in a swimming class now.

My classmates are triathletes learning how to improve their breathing strategies and I’m the weirdo trying to learn how to not feel like I’m going to drown every time my head is submerged in water.

It’s a process and my teacher is wonderfully patient.

My basic goal with that is to not be so afraid of the lake this summer, and maybe, maybe, not freak out about the possibility of flying off the jetski when my friends and I double up.

This week I want to share a little bit more about where I spend my time—both online and off, in a “Starting to Get Addicted To…” series. Maybe I’ll even introduce you to a new addiction (and I promise, it will not be toilet paper).

Let’s all agree to carve out happy trails this week. Deal? Deal.

judging a book by its cover

Before we moved in 2009, my father’s college textbooks used to travel with us from house to house.  I remember the orange “used” stickers dotting the sides of seemingly random psychology books and novels in the basement and all around my parent’s bedrooms.

My introduction to classic literature came from talking vegetables and time-traveling dogs, but I was surrounded by it from birth.

I read a book about Mr. Blue’s Farm, then read Animal Farm.

I watched Veggie Tales’ Grapes of Wrath, then attempted Steinbeck’s novel.

Unlike Animal Farm, I couldn’t get by with a notebook full of unknown words and a dictionary.  I put it down after ten or twelve pages and haven’t gone back since.  I’ll probably need to add that to my “Need to Read” list.

I read Catcher in the Rye sometime in my pre-teen years and was later confused by the barrage of teenagers claiming it as their favorite book.  When I read it I was emotionally too far away from the hopelessly introspective and downtrodden spirit of Holden Caulfield and now I’m too far away from that period of angst to take it seriously.

But I learned a valuable lesson from that book: teenagers who count Catcher in the Rye among their favorite books are almost always the most boring people in the room.  This book marked my last adolescent stint with “college” level reading materials and my introduction to the adult (as in grown-up, NOT skeeze)  fiction section at the public library.

In my hometown, the public library let you check out adult fiction books when you turned eleven but only let you check out DVDs after you turned thirteen.  So at first I read books based on movies I couldn’t see–the top two being White Oleander and Riding in Cars With Boys.  Then when those ran out, I simply judged the books by their covers.

The most memorable covers came from Julianna Baggott,

And, as previously mentioned, Jacqueline Susann:

Methinks it was just an attraction to the color pink…but, it served me well.  By (ruthlessly) judging books by their covers I was introduced to fantastic female authors and the books taught me about the little bits of crazy hiding in everyone.

Win/Win.

StolenSpace, a gallery in East London, is currently hosting a gallery featuring book covers reinterpreted by different artists.

And if ever there was an argument for judging books by their covers, this would be it.  Here are a few of my favorites:

How could you not pick this book up?

Bridget Jones' Diary.

I think that last one is my favorite.  I am not above getting “no emotional fuckwittage” tattooed on me.

on the merits of a flat world

The idea of a flat world is wonderful.

Like Ben Gibbard’s easy travel routes, flat worlds give you clear endings and distances that can eventually be reached.

In the real world when you arrive at your destination there’s always another point just ahead and so on and so forth into eternity.

Young and full of running
Tell me where has that taken me?
Just a great figure eight or a tiny infinity?

I welcomed the new year with Audrey Hepburn, reminding myself that there’s such a lot of world to see.

I can’t remember if I got lost or found in 2010.

The word “lost” is Nordic, it used to mean “to disband one’s army.”  It can represent defeat or striking a truce with the world.  At least, that’s what Rebecca Solnit says in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a collection of short stories.

That’s such a fun way to see things.

Let’s agree to disagree, World.  You go your way, I’ll go mine.

In Rebecca’s collection there is a story of a runner who accumulates all the time her feet aren’t on the ground, those “tiny fragments of levitation.”

It all drips with cheese, the sentiment that “we approach divinity on the journey.”

But maybe it’s true.

Happy New Year, many kazoos and champagne showers to you in twenty-eleven.