But I Still Want a Couch

This semester has been rough. I taught two 16-week classes, one 8-week class, one on-line class. A total of 65 students. One of the classes I taught was not only new – so required intensive seeking out, researching and reading new materials, creation of new lectures each week, and considerable planning initially to get it going in the first place – but was focused on BIG ISSUES that are hard to handle singly, let alone in a barrage over roughly four months.

Add to that that I started writing my dissertation with a plan to be done in 18 months, did a bunch of book signings for my book, gave three talks, and almost finished writing the next novel, an 800+ page tome.

All of this is par for the course, really, so I was a bit confused when two weeks ago I had a week-long breakdown. Woke up one day overwhelmed, and spent a week incapacitated. Well, that might be an overstatement. There was no shivering in bed, no curling into fetal positions with chocolate, no multi-hour TV marathons (okay, maybe that last a little bit… Star-Trek really does help), and no descents into drug or alcohol-induced hazes. No, my breakdown took the form of rebellion against doing anything. I didn’t teach, grade papers, write the next scene or blog post or chapter, and in fact I wasn’t sure I wanted to ever do any of those things again. I didn’t do laundry or dishes. Mostly I fed the dogs, read my book, and went on walks around the neighborhood.

The mood/breakdown/phase passed and things are back to normal, but I had a bit of a revelation somewhere in the middle of the Week-of-Doing-Nothing that has me rethinking privilege and priorities, desire and destruction, and lots of other alliterative approaches to life.

You see, the brand new class I taught this semester was not only about BIG ISSUES, but about how those issues are seemingly unending and insurmountable. We watched films ranging from The 11th Hour to Saving Face, from Osama to What Are We Doing Here, from Syriana to War Dance, Manufactured Landscapes to Miss Representation to The Battle of Algiers, Paradise Now, and Gandhi. Or, for those not familiar with these films, they deal with environmental destruction, acid throwing in Pakistan, the oppression/abuse of women in Afghanistan, Aid and its problems in Africa, the corruption of the oil industry, child soldiers in a country in Africa, industrial waste, the denigrating of women in America, terrorism and its reasons, and resistance to colonialism, respectively.

What I learned, really, more than the details of the issues, was that it’s really hard to spend 16 weeks learning about the state of the world elsewhere, and feel the same about the state of my life here. The fact is that most of the world’s population lives in far far less luxury than I do, than we do – than anyone who has the means to read this post does. And the ultimate takeaway from this class for me was “what are you doing to do about it?”

This was a question a number of my students asked, and more than a few said they felt overwhelmed by the issues, and guilty about the relative ease in which they agonized over things most of the world dreams of being afflicted with – too much stuff, being overweight, stressful school situation, family problems, relationship issues. When your husband has burned your face with acid, that’s a relationship issue. When your parents have died and you, at the age of 15, are taking care of 7 younger siblings – all of whom have AIDS – that’s a family problem. When your school is bulldozed to the ground by a rival tribe or competing social group, that’s a stressful school situation. When you haven’t eaten for five days so you can feed your children, that’s a food issue. And so on.

Everyday issues here pale in comparison.

Like that new couch I want. The old one is… old. It’s a tiny bit torn, it’s got some scratches in the leather. It’s sagging just a bit, if you look at it right. And it’s brown. All perfectly respectable reasons to want a new one, and I’ve found a new one just down the street that won’t cost very much. One quick visit to the store and problem solved, new non-brown couch installed, old one out to the house at the lake, and an entire room of my nice big house would have a fresh, clean, new look.

Sixteen weeks ago it would have been an easy decision.

What are you doing to do about it?


My Mother / MySelf

They say home is where the heart is – or where it longs to be.
Or maybe, home is where the food is.
Or possibly home is where the mother is.
Likely, it’s all three.

In Zami, Audre Lorde’s memoir, Lorde connects home to a place she’s never seen, a place her mother dreams of filled with smells and tastes of mango and lime trees and spices and chocolate in a tea tin. Denise Chavez connects home to tacos, particularly and incessantly, and to her mother’s presence in a tiny house with a blue-filled room. For James McBride, home is confusing, split, sometimes here and sometimes there, but always where his mother resides.

Mother and food and heart – the three are entwined in ways far more tightly than the connections to fathers, which seem somehow not quite as intimate though no less strong and full of love / memory / heart. How is it that our lives get tangled into the lives and dreams and food of our mothers? What necessary connection between the womb and our movement through the world? Freud was on to something.

When I think of my mother, images of her in the kitchen spring to mind most readily – or over a campfire, or strapping pot roast to the underside of our car on a road trip through the desert. It’s all about the food, isn’t it? Unlike Chavez, my food memories / mother memories do not center around any one type of food. No, in my memories my mother is always cooking something different, something she saw on The Galloping Gourmet or read in Julie Childs’ cookbook, or finagled out of a friend. My first dinner party: I was 10 years old and invited my friends over to cook pizza. They’d never cooked pizza; for me, it was what we did – my mother, myself, adding vegetables and cheese to flattened home-made dough.

Mother / home / food. Is there a way to dissect these three concepts, to break them apart? Or are they forever melded, held together by blood?

My mother / my heart / myself / home – a small house on Hermosa Dr. NE. My mother grew up in that house, I spent my summers there from the time I was too young to have memories. And the food I remember in that house is cinnamon toast, covered with buttery sweetness on both sides.

Home is the sound of my mother’s laughter, and her voice a year before she died telling me she loved me – a message I listen to and save again each time I get a voicemail – mixed well with the taste of chicken cacciatore and filtered through memories of the Thanksgiving meal she created one year with my much-older boyfriend. Their voices arguing over how exactly to stuff mushrooms correctly drift through my heart and through my memories of the year I moved out of my childhood home for good.


If I close my eyes, she returns home, and I hear the tinkling of ice in her tea glass, swirling round and round as she stirs, sitting at the kitchen table.

(Originally published Dec 12, 2012, on my website at Inkwell-inc.biz)

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

{Yesterday I saw the film MirrorMask, not for the first time. Its loveliness, its quirkiness, the fact that it begins and ends in a circus – a kind of metaphor for my life – and its ability to make me feel joy and wonder each time I watch it, have lodged in my brain somewhere and a kind of movie review/essay is on the way. In the meantime, I was reminded recently of a film review/essay I wrote in December of 2012. So there’s that one, and MirrorMask musings will emerge when it’s ready.}

What happens when “two ordinary guys” from Queens decide to follow in the footsteps of one of the most (in)famous travelers in history? Two years of adventure, danger, frustration, sometimes boredom, sometimes joy, and ultimately an exploration of both the far distant past, and their own present.

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo is the truly captivating recounting of those two years. To say it is a recounting of the journey of a lifetime is quite literally true: it took Marco Polo 24 years to complete, from 1271-1295, and the two men’s journey is no less an epic adventure.

The documentary begins with a male voiceover, over a slightly Eastern-style music, reciting the names of exotic, far away places, overlaying still photos of what we assume might be images of those very places. Right away the film draws us in, asking “can you imagine all those places, the magical names, Samarkand, Bukhara, Beijing, Iran, Afghanistan…” and we step into the world of Francis O’Donnell and Denis Belliveau. As an opening it is quite effective, and as O’Donnell finishes naming the magical places, we get a shot of him talking in classic documentary interview format – to one side of the screen, speaking to someone we cannot see. The next voice we hear, again overlaying still images of more exotic places, is Belliveau’s, and again we cut to him and he speaks. This becomes a motif in this film – exotic, exciting images with a voiceover, then a cut to either O’Donnell or Belliveau speaking to an interviewer. I discuss later the effect this has as the film in the ‘present,’ the men’s journey in their past, and Marco Polo’s journey in the 13th century begin to merge into one fluid moment that seems to have no bounds.

The images are lovely, indeed, and serene if only because they are still. Then, suddenly, the silence and our sense of wonder and maybe envy at this journey we know we are about to witness is shattered by the sound of gunfire, and a filmed firefight. The music stops, and Belliveau’s voiceover here speaks of their kidnapping, having an AK47 pointed at his head, and being sure he would die. “My family would never know what had happened to me out here, my body would never be found. And all for what?” This becomes yet another motif: the danger they faced more than a few times as they attempted to find traces of Marco Polo in places far from the present in many ways. Interwoven throughout are serenity and danger, stillness and movement. This theme carries through the entire movie, in much the same pattern.

All this happens before the credits. When the film proper starts, we begin to learn just what was worth risking their lives for.

The voiceover is female, which is at first jolting, unexpected. Where did O’Donnell and Belliveau go? Who is this woman and why is she telling their story? We never get a clear answer, and yet this third voice becomes an unseen narrator of the adventure the two men took, and we follow their path across continents and oceans with her as our guide. When we hear the men’s voice, we know we will see them speaking – when we hear her, we know we will hear more of their story. It was quite effective, and acted as a balance for what was in all other respects a very male-centered story.

Again, simply stupendous still images, some upbeat fitting music, and the female voiceover comes in to create the myth. She takes us far back into history and tells us about Marco Polo’s world. Again using still images, showing us what we assume are pictures of Marco Polo, the book he wrote about his adventures, she begins to connect the patterns from the opening sequence to what the film will be: history/today/adventure/history/today/adventure, ad infinitum. After Marco Polo’s greatness, she continues in her creation myth when she introduces O’Donnell and Belliveau. These men are ordinary, not scholars or historians, not connected to any university or group. This sets up what we need to know – what we have to believe – about the men to make their travel both more exciting, and more accessible. If they can do it, maybe we can, too.

Some classic documentary techniques are utilized.

• The creation of truth by the juxtaposition of voiceover and image – which may or may not actually be the thing or event being discussed at that moment.
• The use of still images to tell the story as the narrator and the two travelers tell it.
• The interview of the two travelers recounting the story as we see it unfold.
• Seemingly unstaged encounters and conversations with people along the way.
• No attempt to hide the camera.

Each of these added truth-value to the film.

One of the more unique elements of this film was the interweaving of past and present, and how this interweaving seemed to erase the boundaries between the two. Marco Polo’s adventure became O’Donnell and Belliveau’s adventure complete with in some cases encountering the very same customs, ruins, and one immense reclining Buddha. It became difficult to determine whose story we were following, and then comes the realization: it is all their stories, and ours as well.

Ultimately the message of this documentary was profound, yet it had less to do with walking through history than it does with looking to the future. Yes, the people these men encountered, and their customs, were exotic and exiting. Yes the landscape was unique, vibrant and at times life-threateningly hazardous. And yes, the ruins and statues Marco Polo saw 700 years before were still there, still touchable, and somehow a link to the past. But as the film comes to a close, the filmmakers step out of the past – both the ancient and the near – and move toward a future that can be just as wondrous.

Their journey comes to an end where it started, in Venice, and the last images we see are of their lives ‘today’ – the present of the film itself. O’Donnell is an artist living in Queens, and we see his work in vibrant color. Belliveau is married with children, and also still in Queens. Is all life, then, and all journeys, a circle? Do we end up where we started? And if so, have we become changed by our adventures on the way to that point?

Belliveau believes this is true. His last words sum up what this film both exposes, and holds close to its heart: As still images and short moments of video dissolve one into the next across the screen, Belliveau says, “I would say that most of the world is full of good people. There’s a lot more good people on the planet than bad.” The images keep coming. Closeups of men and women, boys and girls, all beautiful in a way that is beyond words – their faces shine. A trick of photography? Something we have learned along the way that makes this so? Or reality shining through?

O’Donnell’s voice fades in: “It’s easy to hate someone you never met. Travel is the enemy of bigotry.” And as we get now quick video clips of both of them encircled by those they met along the way – from monks to soldiers, from small boys to half-naked warriors, and from women in multi-colored veils to ancient men in shorts – all of them in essence embodying this message, O’Donnell says “Get out there. Meet them. They’re good.”

Indeed, this becomes the lesson.

To stay in one place is death to innovation, wonder, joy, and understanding. But to return home having experienced the world is a gift not only to ourselves, but to all those we touch with our stories.

This documentary was remarkable in many ways, not least because of the essential simplicity of the pieces that went into the creation of its whole. Simple, still images, interviews with only the two travelers, some video footage taken along the way, and three uniquely different storytellers whose voices filled in the blanks and wove history into the present. Somehow the film became more than the sum of its parts, and at the end we are left with a feeling of hope.

For information on this film, see imdb. For information about Marco Polo, see here.

Men into Monsters

Today I saw a photo that made me both joyful, and unutterably sad. It was of a Palestinian man holding a baby aloft. The baby is bundled in a striped sweater and green pants, and is standing in the man’s hands as he holds them out in front of him. Both are laughing, and the baby’s arms are straight out from its body.

This photo and the emotions I felt, and the actions a ‘friend’ took when I posted a response to this photo on Facebook are emblematic for me of both what’s absolutely right and what’s terribly wrong in the world.

My first reaction was one of joy – my heart literally filled with joy when I looked at this man’s face, the little baby, the way the man held it with such love, the moment of happiness they shared. Unadulterated love, unmitigated and whole.

On the heels of that joy came a sharp sadness akin to despair. The fact that these were Palestinian people brings with it a hundred other associations, the most potent of which for me this morning was that in the world today, joy and happiness and fat little babies standing on outstretched arms can be obliterated, destroyed by hatred and ignorance.

I am not talking specifically of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I am not talking of the Middle East. I am not talking of today or yesterday or last year or the last decade, but of all of that time, and as far back into the past as people have been looking at each other and seeing anything other than themselves.

I look at this photo and I see people in a moment of joy, and I ache for the joy that is shattered every day, in all parts of the world, because people cannot see each other.

We – everyone, a generic ‘we’ – turn people into monsters and then send bombers to drop death into their midst. We call them heathen, infidel, terrorist, evil-doers, and thereby give ourselves license to kill.And we create hell from a distance and then don’t understand how this creates hatred in return.

I am astounded that death of any kind is acceptable, that war is seen as inevitable, that ever bigger and more lethal weapons are created and used to destroy cities, ancient art, history, families, people.Babies standing with outstretched arms on men’s hands.

Can it be simply that these people who condone this kind of death are unaware of what death looks like – the blood, the body parts, the screaming of those left alive? Can it be that they think the worth of a person is measured by their belief in a certain god or a way of living?Can it be that they believe in a cause so wholeheartedly that it does not matter whom they destroy on their way to a the desired goal? Can it be that they don’t see that for every lost parent, a child mourns?

All this was in my mind as I posted on Facebook a very simple statement about the photo, the baby, and how my day was made brighter by their existence. Less than an hour later, a ‘friend’ unfriended me. This person is Jewish. She believes that death is justly visited when it involves a ‘homeland’ she has never been to, clothed in a religion she was not born into. I don’t know if my post is why she decided I am no longer someone she wants to be associated with. I don’t actually care. The coincidence is too striking not to be noteworthy, and I suspect that, given her postings during the Israel/Gaza conflict last year, in which more than one thousand Palestinians died at the hands of the IDF, the fact that I found the smiles of these particular people in this particular picture beautiful, was abhorrent to her. I suspect it also frightened her. If she begins to think of them as people who love their children, they become harder to kill.

Maybe this is the whole point: that those who choose not to listen, who choose not to look at photos of men with children, who can think of ‘them’ as somehow other than ‘us’ can be so frightened by evidence of love that they need to turn their eyes away.

When will enough be enough? When will death and killing and destruction of lives be unacceptable to enough people worldwide to shift the balance, to make killing not a last resort, but a non-option?

How many babies looking with joy at their fathers, at their mothers, at their grandparents, need to die before the blood stops flowing? And when will mothers of children be able to see and understand that same love in an-other’s eyes, and not turn away?

I am often on the verge of despair.

The Circus

carnaval-de-veniseI’ve been struggling lately to write three different essays. One about court jesters, one about masks, and a third about the circus. It occurred to me that the problem is that I’m trying to create distinctions where really there are none.

While not interchangeable, the concepts encompassed by jesters, masks, and circuses overlap, and it is in the overlap where I find the most exciting moments. All three are liminal ‘spaces’ wherein the rules of social interaction, personal space, body and facial cues for behavior, and normative relationships just don’t apply.

Court jesters’ most distinctive characteristics are their brash honesty, their impunity, their fearlessness in the face of truths others do not want to speak. It is in fact the job description of a court jester that he – almost always he – address the nakedness of the emperor, and preferably that he be either outlandishly dressed himself or somehow otherwise observably ‘outside’ the norm: bodily disabled, excessively short, exceedingly ugly. These extra-ordinary elements act as armor against the wrath of all who are unlucky enough to stand in the crosshairs, and the jester is allowed a freedom that others can only envy; emulation is certain death.

Masks, as objects, perform a function that is intimately connected with this freedom to speak; when one dons a mask, all emotion, all reaction becomes simply reflection. Encounters with masked persons are discomfiting. They are Immovable, unable to transmit cues to how we should act, and so we end up reacting but only to ourselves; masks reflect exactly – and solely – what we think they do. The truth is harder to find, perhaps, than when an absurdly dressed grotesque announces it, and it does not arrive neatly packaged or easily interpreted. Often it is in our own discomfort in the face of unmoving non-expression that we realize what our truths are.

And the circus. The home of cavorting animals, shocking feats of anti-gravity and twists of appendages, it is suffused with the absurd, the unbelievable, the physics-ly impossible. We sit on the bleachers under the big top and forget that what we see is not what is, and that what we think exists is only illusion. The circus is an anti-mask, offering extraordinarily fraught moments that catch our breath, and entail, as they unfold, all we need in order to react. They tell us lies, and yet….

Truth is not absent here, it is brazenly obvious.

The liminal has become infused with the real, and we expect the unexpected. Our masks have fallen through the peanut-covered bleachers to the dim spaces beneath us and they lie helter-skelter in the shadows, their hollow eyes staring at nothing as the crowd roars.

What you see IS what you get.

Clowns / Monsters

Recently, lack of sleep conspired with a late night editing project and I read the word ‘clowns’ instead of ‘clones’ in an essay about the monstrousness of hermaphroditic clones, and all was lost. I began reading ‘clowns’ throughout, and by the end of the essay was convinced, indeed, of the monstrousness of clowns.A row of sideshow carnival game clowns with mouths open.  Focus to middle clown. Stock Photo - 13605862

It wasn’t what the author intended, of course, but it did set me on a path I can’t seem to step off of, and I can’t stop thinking about clowns. And as it turns out, they’re relatively monstrous, indeed.

Clowns, and their cousins the court jesters (the subject, soon, of another musing), fools, and those unfortunates who found themselves on display in Freak Shows (yet another upcoming post), have been an essential part of society for centuries. Their history extends back more than 4500 years, and they have danced, somersaulted, ridden, fallen… clowned their way through time. (It’s tempting to believe that fear of clowns is just as time-honored but it seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. That fact won’t deter me, however, and for the record, the fear of clowns has a name: Coulrophobia).

One thing is certain. Clowns in any guise function in ways that are layered, nuanced, and ultimately… dare I say it… unnerving.

On the surface, clowns are silly. Yet their exaggerated features – big red nose, huge floppy feet, oversized clothing, big hair, painted-on expressions – make us uncomfortable. We encounter them in liminal spaces – a circus, a tent – and, out of our element, they force us to respond. With their foolish actions and funny clothes, they taunt us, they disarm us, they make us laugh, and we forget that their true function is to undermine the seriousness of what we (think we) know and believe.

Unnerved. Uncomfortable. Self-reflective. In fact, what makes clowns so monstrous is their ability to make us feel these things, and our own inability to know how to respond. And when they invite us to join them in their antics, they tap into an even deeper fear – that of appearing to be a fool… which is full circle, really. For the fact is that we ARE the fools. Clowns are simply reflecting back to each of us our own sense of uncertainty.

Monsters as a whole tend to stay outside the boundaries of our neat little worlds; they intrude only when invited, or when the edges between us and them blur just enough to allow them entry during times of social upheaval, general ennui, or looming change. Generally we fight them back, and they disappear into the shadows leaving us free to forget their warnings until they burst upon us again.

But clowns are different. As monsters dressed in polka-dotted trousers and animated ties, they force us to engage, to step outside ourselves. To come face to face with not just our fears, but the overdrawn, brightly-colored smiles – or frowns – that, like our own, like our lives, might mean nothing at all.

Besides, they’re just creepy. I wonder if there’s a club around here for coulrophobics…?


big wigs

I’m beginning to think about bigwigs.

Or, big wigs.

And the intricacies of meaning, signification.

All things carry traces of meaning through time. Objects and language retain and accrete significance as they travel through history – as do places, and even people. In other words, in all things are traces of their origins.

Bigwig began in eighteenth century France, and originally really were big wigs.  Really big. Many feet high, in fact. The court was full of men and women who carried upon their heads wigs which were far more than simply adornment and aesthetics, vanity and purely without function. They indicated, among other things, the absolute lack of need to actually do anything worthwhile. And wigs grew in size and weight until they had to be placed on one’s head by a series of ladders, scaffolding, ropes and a myriad of people. Our imaginations can call to mind instances in which these wigs might topple over, perhaps, or pull their wearers over onto their bums. I don’t know if this happened; it’s conjecture. But it’s fun to think about. And no matter what actually happened, essentially these wigs incapacitated their wearers; they became the mark of someone who was superfluous, despite the trappings of power.

Today the term ‘bigwig’ is still used to refer to someone in power. Given the above, this means that the word contains traces that go back to that imagined French court. So today’s bigwigs are etymologically – and perhaps functionally – direct descendants of those whose vanity created towering, ridiculous headpieces… those whose vanity required height rather than depth, essentially… those in control, with the power to make us eat cake. And they issue proclamations and we scurry to obey while marveling at the beauty of their useless crowns.