Friday, March 28, 2008

I Read Things a Lot

Just seems to be the season. This coming Tuesday I'm going to be reading in Tuesday Funk, a reading series created by Gothic Funk.

Tuesday, April 1
7:00 pm
Ennui Cafe, 6981 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago
(corner of Sheridan and Lunt)

I'm deciding between two stories to read right now, but either way it's going to be fun. As soon as I know the names of the other two people who will be reading with me (Connor, can you provide them?), I'll amend this post to include them as well.

Awesome. Please come see me read!

Friday Poetry: Sarah Nooter

This poem comes from a high school classmate, when she was still in high school. So if she's googling herself and comes across this and is no longer connected to this poem, I apologize for perpetuating it. But it's been in my head a lot lately, it is published (i.e. I'm not just sneaking it out of my high school poetry class), and it stands right now, I think, as a particular shout-out to Tyromaven.

Sarah Nooter
Pears of the World

We, the pears of the world,
would like for you to eat us
whole. We want you to peel us,
to boil us, to poach us. Smother
us in the milk of raspberries. Singe
us with molten chocolate.

Grow us, pick us,
wash and slice us,
chew us,
tell us when we're too ripe
and too dry.
No, really.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Maybe We're the Problem, Musical Theater Edition

I just watched Mr. Burton's adaptation of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd for the second time, and Court Theatre will soon be opening a revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel. (Spoilers, obviously, follow.) Both pieces (actually, it's more Sondheim's general oeuvre than Sweeney Todd in particular, but this was the viewing where I started thinking about it in the context of his oeuvre) put me in mind of their sexism, and if it's possible to work with that today in a productive way, allowing it simply to overact with, rather than overshadow, the other amazing elements of the pieces.

I've heard any number of complaints about Carousel in the last several years from feminists I respect, who consider it "the wife-beating musical." And it is true, and undeniable, that the piece contains the following exchange of dialogue between
daughter and mother, after daughter has been visited by father's ghost: "Is it possible for someone to hit you that hard and have it not hurt at all?" "Yes, darling, it is possible for someone to hit you that hard and have it not hurt at all." (That is probably not a *precisely* verbatim quote, but most of those words are included in that order.) I'm not going to claim that's easy to swallow from where we live today; it's pretty disappointing to me that it was swallowed in 1945. And yet I have a lot of trouble reducing the work to that.

The opening scenes of Carousel, set at the end of the nineteenth century, follow three characters: a New England mill worker named Julie Jordan, her friend and co-worker Carrie Pipperidge, and a carousel barker named Billy Bigelow. Carrie and Julie have been riding the carousel on their day off; the carousel owner forbids Julie from returning because Billy put his arm around her while she was riding. Carrie tries to tease Julie about it, but ends talking about how distant Julie's been at the mill, and then opens the door to talk about her own much more conventional romantic interest. When Billy comes to talk to Julie and Carrie departs, the "bench scene" begins.

The bench scene is honestly one of the best love scenes I know, in musical theater, non-musical theater, film, anything. Two misfits meet and experience the most intense attraction they've ever known, which neither quite has the vocabulary to talk about. This is expressed in song, an exchange of beautiful, awkward recitatives and then the exchange of the song "If I Loved You," in which each explains to the other, using the same words, how they'd feel if what is in fact happening to them were happening to them. By the end of it, their first real kiss, they're clearly and deeply bound to one another, clearly so isolated in the worlds they've been living in and needing one another so much they seem to have been waiting for one another all along.

Of course, when the musical flashes forward into its next scene a couple of months later, Billy and Julie's marriage has turned abusive and Billy has proved himself a ne'er-do-well who associates with ne'er-do-well seafaring friends (Jigger, the supporting character who fits that description, was one of my main fictional crushes for several years). Learning that Julie is pregnant makes Billy desperate to get money to support his child, leading him to commit a robbery with Jigger that leads to his death, though of course it's more complicated than that. He ascends to heaven, where time passes faster, and is allowed to go back to Earth, where his daughter Louise is now fifteen, to redeem himself. Observing her misery, all of which is caused by him, is difficult for him, and when he in his earthly manifestation actually speaks to her, he becomes quickly frustrated and slaps her. And yet—Julie arrives, and the notoriously creepy lines of dialogue are spoken. An invisible, insubstantial Billy whispers to Julie that he loves her, truly, and at Louise's graduation whispers to her to have confidence in herself. They invisibly, insubstantially hear him and as such he is allowed into heaven.

Summarized in any way, the musical's problematic; I can't fight it. And yet the bench scene honestly is one of the best love scenes out there. My question is, why does Carousel have to become "the wife-beating musical," rather than a musical about two fucked-up, lonely, desperate people who find each other and figure out, in fucked-up, desperate ways, that finding each other isn't always enough, but is always deeply valuable?

As Silvana pointed out in a conversation about this, when the play is onstage much of the ability to portray what I outlined above depends on the portrayal of the rest of the townspeople. This New England fishing village, a small industrial center, is a very cohesive community where everyone has clambakes together, and it's an ethos to which both Billy and Julie are outsiders, even with a close friend like Carrie. However, they are too bound to and by love to be entirely outside of the confines of this society, like Jigger is—they have something to care about. Both Billy and Julie are trapped, and would simply have been more trapped if they hadn't found each other. If Julie's happy she found Billy in spite of his clear and acknowledged shortcomings, why do we have to cast her as a victim?

Okay, if I'm going to make a fair argument around this I do have to look at the lyrics of Julie's love song, which she sings to convince Carrie to stay with her obnoxious fiancé Enoch, who threatens to leave her when Jigger hits on her.

Made him the way that he is
Whether he's false or true,
And somethin'
Gave him the things that are his,
One of those things is you,
So when he wants your kisses
You will give them to the lad
And anywhere he leads you you will walk
And anytime he needs you
You'll go runnin' there like mad,
You're his girl and he's your feller
And all the rest is 'talk'!

Obnoxious. Dated. Makes my skin crawl just a little, as it has since I first heard it—or at least listened to the lyrics closely—in high school. And yet, can't it be in part of its time and in part a truth about the character and the relationship? They are desperate, and lost outside the margins of their society, and they truly love each other.

The long and short of it, to me, is that relegating Carousel to the position of "the wife-beating musical" is to limit your faith in its character development. Julie is in some ways a product of her time, in other ways an exception to it, and she's stuck. And she loves him, and must we place so little faith in her as to say the love isn't actually real? Billy is a fucked-up guy who does terrible things, and the power of theater, of art, is that people don't have to be limited to that. I don't think Carousel in any way endorses Billy's abuse; it says he both hit Julie and loved her. This is possible. It means he was terrible at loving her in action, but the show acknowledges this.

It says that good intentions are enough to get you into heaven, and if I believed in heaven I'm not sure I would want that. I can see this show being slightly more offensive to the liberal religious. But the heart of the show is two differently fucked-up people who love each other desperately, and that love does not stop them from being fucked up.

This, too, is what should be at the heart of Wheeler and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, to make it accessible and successful, although the people in question are much less realistic and much more fucked up than those in Carousel. But Sweeney Todd should, at heart, be a deeply disturbing love story.

I wouldn't admit it for quite some time, but Mr. Sondheim, in addition to being something of a general misanthrope, is really rather misogynistic in his work overall. (Yes, he has collaborators, but as this is a common thread to his musicals with various collaborators, I feel safe assuming it has something to do with him.) I've yet to get to the point where I think this devalues the work for the most part (although my fondness for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has certainly tapered off over the years, especially when I recall our rather offensive attempts to perform it at my single-sex summer camp), but he ain't so good with making female characters anything other than objects determined by men.

Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, however, can get beyond that. She has her own motivations, some of which have to do with love and some of which do not; she's not purely a device in the piece, her desires aren't mocked by the script and music (though they often are by bad productions), and it's her decisions and changes of heart on which the show hinges.

Once Mrs. Lovett is limited to a broad comedic device, of course, she's useless and emotional connection to the show is lost. Sweeney Todd, whatever his ostensible motives, is psychotic, and his transition from wanting to kill only the Judge to wanting to kill absolutely everyone is not an easy one to hook into. Mrs. Lovett's unrequited love, however, can take you there. Yes, she's as mentally ill as Todd is, but slightly more hooked into reality, practical, in a way that grounds us with her. If we have no one to follow the musical falls apart; Todd is too insane, Anthony and Johanna too boring. Mrs. Lovett, however weird, is our hook, and we have to see her sickness as born of a desperation we have access to in "The Worst Pies in London." This isn't to say that she shouldn't be funny, but that if you play her honestly she's going to be hilarious, and if you do play her honestly she can also be a story.

It's likely, then, that I would have hated the original production of Sweeney Todd. From what I've heard of the recording, Angela Lansbury played Mrs. Lovett for broad comedy rather than the relationship, in which case I really don't know why I'd be watching the thing rather than listening to it, and even that doesn't sound like that much fun. I could be wrong, of course—Ms. Lansbury has declared it the most important role of her theatrical career, and of course I didn't see it—but the point I intend to make is that the piece's ability to be something other than good songs relies almost entirely on that character.

I also postulate that "A Little Priest," if done correctly, is one of Sondheim's best love songs. Again, it's easy to play for broad comedy and so much is lost when you do. But what's really happening in the song is that these two people, these two deeply fucked-up people, are creating a powerful idea together out of love. That's what that song is if you play it from the inside, and playing it from the inside, in addition to just being better acting, makes it all the more scary for the audience. (See Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, for instance.) Todd, in this song, sees Mrs. Lovett for the first time, sees that she thinks as he does and he wants and values that connection, that he no longer has to be alone and isolated with his insanity but has a true partner. Mrs. Lovett, for her part, has trying to get through to Todd from the first moment, and her joy in finally doing so, in finally finding the point at which they meet. The joy in the song is the joy of two lovers creating something together. We as an audience can and should be repulsed by what they share and what they're planning to create, but the song is about what's between the two of them, and for the first time, what's between them is indeed love.

The film doesn't quite succeed in creating the love story, but it comes fairly close. Tim Burton, I've finally realized, is grievously afraid of sex, always creating (or adapting) a story that casts favor on those shy, sexually hesitant and/or chaste, and if adapting placing more emphasis on the distinction between those characters and their more brazen counterparts. (Corpse Bride, anybody?) Fortunately, his wife and favorite leading man have no such hang-ups, which allowed for a workable amount of sexy in their scenes, but couldn't quite salvage the force of romantic joy that "A Little Priest," done correctly, could have.

In other words, both of these shows could be sexist; neither has to be. Whether they are inherently is a question as delicate as the question surrounding Taming of the Shrew. They have sexist elements—in Carousel I'd say mainly the product of its time, in Sweeney Todd mainly the product of its author—but they develop the characters strongly enough for good productions to ... not transcend the sexism, per se, but allow the pieces to turn on another axis.

This is totally one of those pieces no one's going to read, but I needed to write it anyway. I am so okay with that.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Friday Poetry: William Carlos Williams

I'm currently visiting my friend E in Michigan. Though she's only 20 minutes outside of Detroit, on an arts and educational campus, it's the most non-urban setting I've entered in a long time, which makes this poem slightly more appropriate than it already was. Huzzah.

William Carlos Williams
Spring and All

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

Friday, March 14, 2008

Not to Mention 3.14!

In addition to being National Reluctant Optimism Day, it's also Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day! Please go out and eat pie, because I think I'm going to do the same thing right now, or as soon as I apply for one more out-of-United-States job. And even if I eat pie physically alone, I don't want to do it spiritually alone. It's almost time for strawberry-rhubarb pie!

Friday Poetry: Sheenagh Pugh

Continuing with National Reluctant Optimism Day.

Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes wills tep back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

100 Good Things

I've been having a very negative couple of months. With some decent reasons for it, but still, it's kind of silly. This post represents, in the absence of a substantive essay, an effort to alleviate that negativity as spring arrives.

As they say on Arrested Development, "SPRINGBREAK! Woo!"

100 Good Things
1. Hard-boiled eggs. Man, those fuckers are delicious.
2. Seeing my students really support one another in their efforts to understand what we're learning and to prepare for the serious changes they might be able to make with a GED.
3. Algebra.
4. A 3-hour-long walk with an amazing friend who's up for antagonizing me in order to make me challenge myself.
5. Weather that allows for a comfortable 3-hour-long walk.
6. Shoes that allow for a comfortable 3-hour-long walk.
7. 10-year-olds crooning "We Are the Champions" into live mics after being told they had an excellent tech rehearsal. (The first time, that is. Yesterday it kinda got old.)
8. An American Tragedy, even though it gave me nightmares. It's a really compelling book.
9. The Threepenny Opera. Especially in German.
11. Teaching other people, especially kids, to walk on stilts.
12. Small, emotionally necessary episodes of schadenfreude.
13. Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.
14. Skirts.
15. The possibility of getting a new bike.
16. Actually applying to actual jobs in actual non-United-States countries.
17. Discovering that the pain in the back of my mouth is a canker sore and not gingivitis. (Sorry, but that really is a good thing.)
18. An excellent, eye-opening conversation with somebody new in my life that was not only able to make me aware of the new person's potential awesomeness, but was able to assure me that I really can leave the city where I've lived for eight years, live out of the country, and be Okay.
19. The Regina Spektor song "On the Radio."
20. Figuring out how to get my new digital camera working again, even though it's annoying.
21. Being able to see my floor.
22. Being able to see the Sears Tower from my window.
23. My chicken purse.
24. Having a few new friendships awakening, even though I'm leaving in a few months.
25. Feeling deeply assured of the staying power of my old friendships.
26. Even if I'm not reciprocating, it *is* kind of awesome to have someone incredibly attracted to me.
27. Hearing from old students several years later.
28. Sleeping past 8 am.
29. Knowing I've collaborated with awesome artists who continue to respect, and sometimes even love, me post-collaboration, especially when I feel the same way.
30. Ideas for things to write.
31. Writing things based on those ideas.
32. The fact that I live with a really caring and interesting person, a super furry animal, and a six-foot-tall tree puppet.
33. Places to go, people to see.
34. The fact that most of my nails are too long, which means I haven't bitten 'em off! Word!
35. Boobies. Mine especially, but they're all rather neat.
36. The beach. Any kind of beach. The lakefront beaches in Chicago, in spite of their distinct lack of ocean, have grown on me over the years.
37. Everything I know about science already, and the prospect of learning more, both to teach and just because I want to know.
38. Reading at least a couple of pages of my big neuroscience book before I go to sleep every night, and the idea that maybe I'll do the same with the Bible when I finish the big neuroscience book.
39. The connections I've felt with large numbers of Chicago parks over the years.
40. Keeping up with acquaintances on facebook. That's a weird one, too, but one I've had interesting conversations with Silvana about. My friends I'll keep up with and hear their thoughts and their responses to my thoughts no matter what, but it is kind of neat that when I posted a status message about applying to non-U.S. jobs on facebook, several people I know and like but am not close to responded right away and had interesting things to say.
41. Coming into the season of no socks!
42. Beeswax lip balm. And learning more about what bee products can do.
43. Accepting that sometimes I've done nothing but watch TV on DVD for a couple of straight days, and that's really okay.
44. Friends who will help you edit cover letters early in the morning.
45. Talking to my grandmother. She's hilarious, caustic, and really a much more fascinating person than she lets on.
46. Imagining Guatemala, and Ghana, and Thailand, and Swaziland, and Tanzania, and the possibility that I really could go to any of them.
47. Coaching my friends for auditions. I like being able to do something concrete for people, as well as abstract things.
48. Getting shit done.
49. Sometimes not getting shit done.
50. The Caryl Churchill play The Skriker, and the fact that I will see a production of it soon, whatever I end up thinking of that production.
51. Upcoming trips to Detroit, Memphis and New York.
52. The prospect of some people I've taught actually getting their GEDs, while I am still at my workplace.
53. The prospect of leaving my workplace and still having some time to live in Chicago spring.
54. Probable short trips to India and Israel.
55. The resulting prospect of having been to at least one more continent in the next year.
56. The prospect of going along for a leg of Tyromaven's nationwide tour, especially since after that we won't live in the same place for a while.
57. The resulting prospect of having been to several more states in the next year.
58. Thinking about options besides missing people.
59. The fact that I could, in decent conscience, vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins the nomination, and could even more comfortably vote for Barack Obama if he does, and that both these individuals have a halfway decent chance of winning the presidency.
60. My Wednesday-night work dates with Connor and Jess. We haven't had many, but they're consistently relaxing, easy and steadying in a difficult time for me.
61. Working on a lot of writing projects, even if slowly.
62. Being almost done with Camus's The Rebel, close enough to the end that I can finally understand what the big deal is about it.
63. Seeing Tyromaven's notes all over the borrowed copy of The Rebel and getting a marvellous, visceral sense of her as a reader.
64. Having some friends with whom I talk about anything and everything, and some friends with whom I have only two or three topics, and valuing both.
65. Balls to Congress. I'm still really proud of it. Send balls!
66. My really exciting ideas for the youth theater company I want to run in three or four years. I'm writing up a proposal for them, and I can foresee many difficulties, but the project itself is awesome enough that I'm ready to take them on.
67. Having short hair, especially when I buzz it again.
68. Being able to hear, as if they were really there, my friends' voices speaking their Emails or IM correspondence.
69. The fact that I finished a novel in three months, even though I still have months and probably years of revising to do.
70. That Chicago will be solidly green within the next month.
71. Worm composting, and the idea of putting wet cardboard on the ground to get me some more worms.
72. Owning a drill and being a woman who owns a drill.
73. The fact that, out of something that was overall an extremely negative experience, I still got a "Most Pins Left Standing" bowling trophy, which I display with pride. For that matter, I got a good friend out of that experience, too, but the friendship doesn't belong to that experience anymore.
74. Awesome people having babies.
75. Down quilts when I need 'em, open windows when I don't.
76. Masturbation. (It *is* a good thing.)
77. Thinking critically about the pros and cons of leadership and what kind of leader I want to be.
78. The First Coat song "Lotto," especially when I'm thinking about romance.
79. That my memories of my senior year of high school are almost uniformly positive. What a privilege.
80. Stephen Dunn, the poet. Absolutely everything about him.
81. Enjoying new artistic collaborators, whether or not they'll be new friends.
82. A beautiful bell my cousin brought back from China thirty years ago.
83. Russell Banks and being able to think critically about my race as a result of reading his work.
84. Exchanging intensely intellectual Emails with Lucas about young adult books and their politics.
85. Taking out the trash.
86. The decision to walk to Leeann's place tonight rather than taking lots of buses.
87. Having met a lot of really wonderful children in the last eight years.
88. Knowing this city really, really well. Better than most people who live in it. It's a silly thing to be competitive about, but I am, and mostly I win.
89. The coming of outdoor tables at eateries.
90. Picnics! I plan to have several before I move.
91. Cupcakes. And broccoli. Those both sound sooooo good right now.
92. Educating myself about global warming and climate change by having to educate others about it, even with the trial and error that comes with that.
93. Liking as many people as I love.
94. Writing a musical. With another person.
95. Off the above, doing things I have never done before.
96. The picture above my desk of Maddy looking into a well in Italy, and the memories of that trip, and the fact that we're still friends seven years later and will always have shared that.
97. Dramagirls.
98. The prospect of living not in a city.
99. Sort of kind of vaguely knowing how to drive, even though I don't have a license yet.
100. Making lists. I know that's an obnoxiously meta way to end it, but you know what? I really fuckin' like to make lists. They make me happy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Billy and Eliot

I'm sad about Eliot Spitzer. I know it's weird, but I am. I've been an expat since long before he was elected governor, but as a teenager I was an admirer of his, his relentless energy and his willing to go head-to-head with Rudy Giuliani on the issue of New York City community gardens, and I've heard nothing not positive about him as a governor. Well, you know, until now.

It's calling Bill Clinton to mind, of course, and the fact is in terms of a legal violation this is much, much worse. At the beginning of the scandal, Bill Clinton was neither performing an illegal act nor doing something he had publically repudiated and fought against. I mean, I know I was ten, but I really can't recall any Clinton campaign promises that pertained, directly or indirectly, to oral sex, and whatever the American public thinks of adultery it ain't no longer against the law. He may have been taking advantage of his position to get Monica Lewinsky interested in him—in fact, he almost unquestionably was—but that, again, while icky, is not illegal. So though he perjured himself, and I accept that that was, indeed, an illegal act committed by the President, I think it was both ethically and legally questionable that anyone was asking him about it in the first place. What crime, exactly, was Mr. Starr expecting to uncover?

Mr. Spitzer, on the other hand, has made a great deal of effort in his career to fight corruption, particularly in public officials, and has, I believe, gone after prostitution as well as other shadow-economy fields, which is an open contradiction to the law he's long helped to enforce and his openly professed principles. Given that, yeah, he has to resign.

But to see a forceful politician who seemed to be honest and consistent, and who has done a lot of really honorable and important things in the time of my political awareness, go down is frustrating and a little sad. I'm almost sorry I care, that I have to, but I do.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Friday Poetry: Shel Silverstein

'Cause I'm in the mood.

Shel Silverstein

My dad gave me one dollar bill
'Cause I'm his smartest son,
And I swapped it for two shiny quarters
'Cause two is more than one!

And then I took the quarters
And traded them to Lou
For three dimes—I guess he don't know
That three is more than two!

Just then, along came old blind Bates
And just 'cause he can't see,
He gave me four nickels for my three dimes
And four is more than three!

And I took the nickels to Hiram Coombs
Down at the seed-feed store,
And the fool gave me five pennies for them,
And five is more than four!

And then I went and showed my dad,
And he got red in the cheeks
And closed his eyes and shook his head—
Too proud of me to speak!

For Real This Time

Now you can actually hear me.


I'll post a post that actually has substance within the post itself soon, I promise this. It's been a rough week.