Thursday, September 24, 2020

SOLUTIONS and OTHER PROBLEMS by Allie Brosh

 

That the title of this book explains the absurd nature of "solutions" by correlating it with "other problems" invites me in. 

When my brother took his life in 2013, I was feeling a lot of things and I wanted to say a lot of things. Mostly that nothing makes sense and that everything hurts. And when I tried to say those things, unsolicited advice came my way with "solutions" that I wasn't seeking and advice that I wasn't interested in. Turns out the universe is filled with people wanting to make a person who is feeling bad to either feel bad about feeling bad or to stop feeling bad. Like the only feeling worthy of having is a "good" one, or a brave one, or a choose happy one. Thankfully, my therapist at the time wasn't dispensing solutions or advice. He simply was and was helping me be.

In Chapter 10 of SOLUTIONS and OTHER PROBLEMS by Allie Brosh, we learn that Allie has also experienced heartbreaking loss. Her sister. Through her drawings and words, Brosh explains the sensation of the bad feelings that you want to explain to the world in such a grim situation. She does this in the most brutally untidy and most dignified way I've ever read.

Yesterday, I tuned into a zoom call where Brosh was interviewed by Marc Maron about this new book. It was lovely. When asked about her favorite comedians, she said that Dave Chapelle's optimism is one she can get behind, noting that Chapelle doesn't cover up the pointlessness and hurt to have the audience only notice the balloons and rainbows. She also stated a discomfort in the idea of advising anyone about anything, but prefers to be an "open source" for anyone who wants to observe how she is going through it. I realize that the most significant influencers in my life don't come at me with unsolicited solutions and advice. Rather, they live and open up the way they live, in case I want to observe it. And sometimes, I derive something helpful from the observation if it comes into view.

That's what this book is. It is an open source where I get to observe stories that allow me to strongly identify, that make me feel that Brosh is weird, that I'm weird, that life is weird, and sometimes, there are balloons.

If HYPERBOLE AND A HALF (Brosh's first book) is about coping with depression, SOLUTIONS and OTHER PROBLEMS is about coping with loss. I'm grateful for both.



Monday, September 21, 2020

THE ART OF CRUELTY by Maggie Nelson



The seventh chapter of THE ART OF CRUELTY by Maggie Nelson is titled The Golden Rule. In it, Nelson cites American composer and philosopher John Cage (1912-1992) as follows:

"I think the Golden Rule, which is often thought of as the center, really, of Christianity, is a mistake: 'Do unto others as you would be done by.' I think this is a mistaken thought. We should do unto others as THEY would be done by."

In other words, who is anybody to say that everybody should be treated or behave a certain way based on anybody's preferences? At the grocery store, the water cooler at the office, in front of the television, or at a theater. And of course, in bed. What is the Golden Rule in bed? Slow and gentle? Or rough and tumble?

Earlier in the book, Nelson cites Yoko Ono's performance art from 1964 titled Cut Piece where Ono sits on a stage with a pair of scissors placed next to her, with permission given to the audience to cut her clothing if they want to. Most don't want to. But some do. Nelson describes how after several nervous minutes of silence laced with giggles, a young man comes forth and cuts her bra straps, thus exposing her breasts.

What does Ono want? What does the young man want? Is he being cruel? What does the audience that stays to watch want? Are they being cruel? And who gets to decide that there should only be one want? Is there consent? What if this or something like this were on tv? 

Maybe a reality show. Like Survivor Island. Is it cruel to watch grown adults suffer from dehydration or gag from eating gross things? And what about American Idol auditions, asks Nelson. Is it cruel for us to watch bad singers get humiliated?  

How do we reconcile the paradoxes within the human heart? We love to tout the Ellen DeGeneres "be kind" narrative while simultaneously proving (through not only the classic Milgrim Experiment (1963) but subsequent experiments designed in like fashion over the years; as well as contradictions of workplaces like the DeGeneres studio) that perfectly average people choose (and perhaps enjoy) cruelty. Is reconciliation impossible because we are mysteriously and unpredictably both kind and cruel? 

GENTLE CAUTION: This book of art criticism cites many other works of art containing sexual violence. Though brilliant, it is not for everyone. Read it if YOU want to (or think you want to).

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Tragedy of Imitation

 




AVANT-GARDE
Elaine deKooning made a keen observation about the twentieth-century American abstract expressionist movement that she herself was part of. A movement where artists living in New York were experimenting, taking risks, and pursuing an avant-garde existence in the way they painted, the way they lived.

The observation as cited in NINTH STREET WOMEN by Mary Gabriel is as follows:
"And to those who clung to the notion that only pure abstraction could be avant-garde, Elaine pointed to the legions of imitators who had mastered the style and in so doing reduced the artists' abstract revolution to mere convention ... True art, she said, is that which reflects an individual creator in a particular time and place, and by its very nature must adapt and change" (page 562).
Couple that with messages we hear from the best. The best painters, writers, musicians, activists, thinkers ... that imitation is a valid and solid way to get into it. To move from a state of "I don't know how to begin" to a state of "I'm doing it" as we imitate the best.

There's an article out there somewhere by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) who shares that the way he got into the flow of writing was to first sit down and transcribe excellent writing. Hill goes onto explain that after transcribing, the writer has to learn how to veer off and start writing his/her own words, with the benefit of having felt how superb sentences feel on the fingertips.

TRAGEDY
In THE ART OF CRUELTY by Maggie Nelson, we learn that Aristotle defines tragedy as an imitation of an action. Such a jolting synthesis by the one who writers and storytellers still turn to, as we pursue how to create compartments that make up the whole of a tragedy.  

I can't help but think that this point by Aristotle is what Elaine deKooning was pointing to when she said that imitation done en masse transforms revolution into convention.

But she was also saying that the tragedy of imitation happens:
  1. When society insists that avant-garde can only be achieved through pure abstraction. Such purity tests persist today—in art and life where know-it-all purists insist that if it's not abstract, it's not art. Or if it's not French cuisine, it's not cuisine. Or if activism isn't free of compromise, it isn't activism. 
  2. When imitators never learn how to stop transcribing and start writing. Where the imitator becomes a replicator, causing that which should inspire change become the opposite.

Friday, September 4, 2020

TOO MUCH and NEVER ENOUGH by Mary Trump

 


THE CRUELTY IS THE POINT
TOO MUCH and NEVER ENOUGH by Mary Trump provides a uniquely intimate look into the Trump family dynamics that helps readers understand the origin of Donald's penchant for grift and cruelty.

Sadly, the origin is Fred, Donald's father. Fred was father to a total of five kids: Maryanne, Freddy, Elizabeth, Donald, and Robert, in that order.

As the daughter of Freddy, Mary witnessed her grandfather dispensing cruelty to Freddy for veering off what was expected of him (to be a ruthless and unethical real estate dealmaker) by becoming an airplane pilot. Donald learned to mimic Fred's cruelty by repeating Fred's opinion to Freddy—that pilot work is glorified bus driver work.  

Imagine being told such a thing by one's parent. And imagine hearing such a thing being repeated by a sibling. So cruel.

THE HUMILITY PRACTICE
A colleague recently told me that it felt great to hear an unexpected compliment from her adult son. She loved hearing it and also she loved the opportunity that the compliment created, for her to practice humility. I hadn't heard anyone frame the humility practice in that way but when I think about it, I think that is how most parents intuitively teach our kids the humility practice—to love and accept compliments and then use those moments to practice humility.

As much as I dread Donald, this book also has me feeling deep sadness for him. Because Fred never taught him about practicing humility. Rather, he was taught that there can never be enough compliments and that anyone who doesn't compliment him is a loser. And that even the highest criminals deserve to be rewarded if they learn to give him compliments.

IT IS WHAT IT IS
I admire that Mary felt the need to write this book to try to help the nation wake up and course-correct. Her book is part of an enormous stack of books that have been written by people who have experienced the same cruelty and corruption. That stack seems to make little difference to his base and enablers, which is the ultimate tragedy.

Decent people on both sides of the aisle have hope that Donald will be defeated in November. But I think we are also bracing for a Donald who will reject the loss and kick and scream to try and hold onto power. I'm not looking forward to that blood bath. And I'm not looking forward to the decades it will take the world to heal from his wretched presidency and the sickness it has flamed.

Monday, August 31, 2020

THE FUTURE IS.

 



I support equality for women. It's in college when I opened my eyes to how deep-rooted and structural sex-based oppression is. It is when I became a radical, structural feminist.

However.

I'm not comfortable wearing a t-shirt that says "feminist." Or other variations like "the sisterhood" or "love your tribe" or "the force is female" or "the future is female." No thanks.

I'm uncomfortable with the notion that there is some sort of genuine sisterhood among ALL individual women. Some of the most egregious acts of cruelty I've experienced have been by individual women. Many women DON'T help women. Women shame. Women gossip. Women sabotage. Women envy. Women take down. So do men. Not all, but many. That's because women and men are human. And many humans (not all) don't help humans (including myself at times). 

I'm also uncomfortable with "the sisterhood" because as Roxane Gay points out in her book BAD FEMINIST, race remains a big problem within some feminist circles.

Because there are those very special individual women who go out of their way to support misogyny, white supremacy, nationalism and ickiness in general to pursue relevance and celebrity ... like Kellyanne, Sarah, Dana, Ann, Tomi ... and quite frankly the 53% of educated white women who helped put disgraceful Trump in office. And in the deep reaches of my radical feminist heart, I say that there are individual men who are more my sisters than these individual women.

When I (mainly through art) criticize/satirize individual women like Kellyanne, there are some voices who tell me that if I am a TRUE feminist, I shouldn't criticize any individual woman including Kellyanne. And further, that I should (hashtag) believe-all-women. 

To which I say: bull fucking shit.

If I believed all women, I would have believed Carolyn Bryant, whose testimony in 1955 led to the lynching of Emmett Till and who 50 years later recanted her testimony.

I support equality for women. Therefore, I support structures that compensate Kellyanne with the same pay that say a Sean Spicer is compensated. That I support structures to not favor Sean over Kellyanne for the same work does not mean that I condone what Kellyanne says or does. Nor that she has immunity from criticism/satirization because she is biologically female. 

The future isn't female.

The future is.
###

[This essay is a slightly expanded version from an earlier draft published on Instagram in August 22, 2016.]

Saturday, August 29, 2020

FACE IT by Debbie Harry


Reading Debbie Harry's memoir FACE IT didn't make me feel like I was reading. It felt like I was listening to her talking, rambling, and meandering through the memories from her life. The book is definitely not a piece of literary elegance but still, it's endearing and filled with details of her journey for anyone who is a super fan of her work, which I am.

Harry loved experimenting musically, socially, and sexually; as well as being open to satirizing the status quo. And I think that's what makes her downright punk. When she saw that irreverent artistic essence in others, she admired it and became influenced by it. Like with Janis Joplin: "I loved the physicality and the sensuality of her performance-how her whole body was in the song" (page 46). 

Method acting is another thing Harry admired: where actors would deliver performances with a true emotional and intellectual connection rather than mere technical recitations. She applied that concept of method acting into her work as a musician and performer. To move beyond technical and into the emotional. True freedom.  
"I would be onstage and there'd be five thousand people pulsing their desire at me. You could feel the heat of it. The raw, animal physicality. Feel them transmitting this strong sexuality. Picking up on it, then working to turn them on even more. And the frenzied feedback cycle would keep building and building ... This was real. Very real" (page 190).
I think this method of interacting with the audience is also available for painters and poets. Provided that as we invest time in developing technical skills, we eventually find the nerve to exchange those skills for freedom (emotional, political, sexual and intellectual) that comes from the kind of underground sensibility of punk that IS Debbie Harry.


Thursday, August 27, 2020

SELF CARE by Leigh Stein


TRIGGER WARNING: This satirical novel (Self Care by Leigh Stein) takes aim at peddlers of: 

  • self-care
  • radical anything
  • expert branding
  • life coaching, and 
  • all others who seek to monetize a persona of themselves as flawless and virtuous (except for when their flaws are outed and then they have to figure out the perfect selfie and inspirational quote that reflect a combination of brave contrition and namaste), shout into the void with unsolicited advice about how everybody should feel and behave (even though their lives are a hot mess).
I thoroughly enjoyed the belly laughs I had in following the characters through the outrageous plot. Mixed with the laughter was a familiar melancholy about how we women search and search and frequently get bamboozled into boarding the guru bus of cliches, only to realize that the guru is just another bozo on the fucking bus that we can never get off of.