brains

For most of my life I’ve felt relatively happy and well-adjusted—this despite a few run of the mill traumas and dysfunctions. Some of my beloved friends and close relatives, some with genius IQs and crazy good artistic abilities, have not always faired so well mentally. They struggle with addiction and various mental illnesses, i.e. depression, anxiety, a bit too much paranoia, et al. They are all wonderful and funny and great to be around and to talk to, except when they are not. They have brains they all contend with daily. I love them. They are wonderful people. The best people. Though, being around them, I’ve often wondered how I got so lucky to feel pretty good most of the time. Well, there’s the answer: I don’t.

This is a surprise to me because it’s a fairly recent discovery.  I’ve had a few dark periods in my adult life, but they were situational and could be measured in months. I was always able to improve with simple things like exercise and time. What I’m realizing, though, is that my sanity may have been a direct result of keeping my brain very very very busy. Basically, I’ve noticed that if I’m not keeping busy by practicing yoga, falling in love, playing the piano, or earning a PhD, my brain gets bored and tries to take itself to crazy town.

When I completed my PhD, I thought I was done with school forever. Now, I’m not so sure. After ten years of school, I wanted to develop other aspects of myself besides just my intellect. These days I have to practice piano, I practice yoga, I make art, and I volunteer with work that (sometimes) seems meaningful for my mental health. (Though several times in the past year I’ve been tempted to stop the volunteer.) Meaninglessness in everything is one of the tricks my brain plays on me, and so finding meaning in life is crucial for my mental health. Basically, I have to work at keeping this brain of mine happy. I love my brain, but I’m learning I have to give it what it needs or else it will punish me.

my (new to me) piano

my (new to me) piano

round 4: knitting a baby blanket (with pattern!)

For years I did not like crafting. It seemed like the antithesis of art, and art was what I was after. However, that’s shifted for me in recent years when suddenly things like tying knots with sticks and stitching little squares into aida cloth has seemed strangely satisfying and important. I’ve even developed a few philosophical justifications for crafting. (And I’ve been delighted that people in my own field of study have taken up the subject as well.)

Recently a colleague,  who takes crafting above and beyond anything I will ever do, stopped by my office to talk about the stuff we’re making, and I was motivated to put together this post about my last baby blanket. I made it as a gift for my cousin’s daughter. Her son got one when he was born, but I hadn’t made one for the older daughter. My homemade blankets have imperfections (which makes them unique! which isn’t something everyone values!)), so I was delighted when my cousin’s husband mentioned that their son loved his blanket and used it all the time.

Here’s the blanket that I made for my cousin’s daughter. I’ll be using this pattern again. I think it is my best baby blanket to date.

Loops and Looms—Lavender

skein of Loops and Looms—Lavender Blues

I used four skeins of Loops and Threads: Country Loom – Lavender Blues. To start, cast on 73 stitches and knit five rows.  Then, to create the border, knit four (mark) add increase, then knit across for 63 stitches. Add another increase, (mark) and then knit the last four. In the next row, knit four (mark), add increase, and then alternate between decrease/slip, increase/knit stitch all the way across for for 63 stitches. At the end, add increase (mark), and then knit the last four stitches.

increase/decrease stitch border

increase/decrease stitch border

For the body of the blanket, continue to knit four (to the mark), increase, knit across (for 63), increase, then knit the last four. For the next row, knit four, then decrease, purl across, decrease again, and then knit the last four. Continue to alternate between knitting/increasing rows and purling/decreasing rows. Stitch to the desired length. I ended on knit stitch (with increases on each end before moving on to border).

At the very end, knit four, decrease/slip, increase/knit (for 63), then knit the last four stitches. That creates the last border edge. Then, knit the last five rows, and cast off.

finished and folded

finished and folded

Maybe Mad Max: Fury Road Is Not So Feminist After All

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been absolutely blown away by the response to the new Mad Max film. The critics absolutely adore this film, and early on started claiming that the film is feminist. Social media has been blowing up with articles about the film. Mostly, I’ve been surprised and pleased that everyone else is noticing what, for a long time, felt like my own little secret.

Beyond that, I’ve been a little uncertain about the most pervasive argument. which is that the film is feminist. While there are many forms of feminism, and this film might encompass some of those interpretations, I’m not entirely convinced that this is a feminist film. In my view, simply adding female characters, and even a female lead, is not enough to make it feminist.

According to the Bechdel test, a movie has to have A) at least two women, who B) talk to each other, about C) something besides a man. Of course it’s shocking that so few films can pass the Bechdel test, but, in my opinion, just passing the Bechdel test is not enough to make it a feminist film. It’s just enough to make it not “problematic” and maybe not sexist. Sadly, however, with so few women represented in film, maybe this is all it takes to earn the “feminist” label. I, however, want a little more.

Yes, Fury Road has female characters, and yes they talked to each other, but did they ever talk about anything besides men—their captors who kept them in chains? Maybe a little bit. Not really. Their entire raison dêtre is a reaction to the men in power. The film is about reacting to a corrupt and toxic system of power, so maybe that could be construed as feminist, but a better reaction to the corrupt political system was never clearly defined (though perhaps implied here and there). We see women acting out of desperation. In my view, the film is mostly about a strong female lead with an action/reaction that may not be clearly feminist, but is (at least) not incredibly sexist.

image from collider.com

image from collider.com

Mad Max: Fury Road directed by George Miller

I saw Mad Max: Fury Road on opening night. I don’t watch many action movies, but I had to see this one. I had all kinds of weird memories like fever dreams about watching Mad Max: Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome with my brother when I was probably too young to be watching them. Through I hadn’t seen the films in decades, life often reminds me of Mad Max films. Frequently, when driving over Point of the Mountain, Utah, I feel like I am in a Mad Max film. Everyone increases their speed to about 80 miles per hour, semis barrel past me, shaking my little car, and motorcyclists with no helmets (and sometimes no shoes!) race past me in the fast lane. Once I saw a guy smoking a bong while driving. It’s just nuts out there, and it always reminds me of the apocalyptic lawless motifs of old Mad Max films.

I frequently reference a Mad Max films, but don’t get a huge response from people. It had felt like I’m the only one for whom those films where impactful. In the weeks leading up to the release of Mad Max: Fury Road I rewatched both Mad Max: Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome to  prepare. The opening scene to Road Warrior is pretty great, but after that I began to doubt my ability to watch the old films. It seemed that too much had changed, that they didn’t hold up over time. But, I persevered and found that, with some patience, both films do hold up in doing what they do best, which is to create a really specific and unique theme and motif that is carried through all of the Mad Max movies—and it’s a really weird motif that I absolutely love.

So, I went to see Fury Road on opening night and was blown away. I couldn’t’ve anticipated what it would be like, but I was delighted at every step of the way. Every image and moment is dedicated to building that same weird and delightful motif that George Miller creates in his other films—but even better this time. It looks like he took the time to add every layer and element that he wanted to add to the story, and it was so fun to see all of the references and connecting work throughout the piece. So, yes, I was already going to like this movie because I had a lot of nostalgia and positive bias, but even so, I still think the film is genius. It surpassed my expectations by a mile.

image from imdb.com

image from imdb.com

My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

For those of you who miss the bygone days of the grad school creative writing workshop, My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta is going to be your jam. It fostered in me nostalgia for those rapid cycling days of pushing myself to the psychological and intellectual limits to produce the wildest new thing imaginable only to discover it’d already been done, and better, and then I was back to the drawing board, and I did this on repeat for a couple of years until maybe (maayyybee) I really did create a few new things.

Washuta’s book has the messy feel of a creative writing workshop. In many of the sections, you can almost imagine the writing prompts to which she’s responding. Readers unfamiliar with this kind of (independent?) prose could very well be put off by this book. And to be fair, even as far as independent presses go, this book has some clunky, first effort moments. As a reader, I was okay with these moments because I was just so glad to be reading something new and different and good and incredibly personal and raw. Maybe too raw.

It’s difficult to write about one’s own mental illness without seeming off-puttingly self-indulgent, and Washuta is aware of this problem and bravely soldiers on. Her themes are so smart—a beautifully nuanced commentary on interactions between race, gender, government, and society. It’s weird. Life’s weird.

Interestingly, both Lena Dunham and Washuta published their books last year and both sometimes use a footnote method, where they break down a piece of text (such as their online dating profile or food journal) with footnotes. The footnotes are so great and so real. It feels very intimate. The only downside (and it’s a big one for me) is that you’ll get vertigo from going back and forth between the original text and the footnotes.

Here are some words I loved:

First, the title: My Body is  Book of Rules is genius.
Next, a chapter title that she should’ve saved for the title of her next novel: “Faster Than Your Heart Can Beat.”

Her descriptions of bipolar:

“…decreased social judgement” (12).

“…a window left open to let the murderers in” (13).

Commentary on Cosmo’s “sex tips”:

“…definitely don’t forget his sack” (18).

Her literary criticism:

She nails her analysis of Catcher in the Rye (a book with which I was previously enamored) like I’ve never seen before when she writes that it “Talks about what’s wrong when that’s not really what’s wrong” (63).

Her insights on life:

“Hope is the thing that comes before the very fucking scary thing” (135).

“do it because you want to, so badly, because you can’t not” (176).

“I am enough” (177).

“Nowadays, when someone else wants to reach me, they get a perpetual busy signal while I whisper sweet nothings to myself late into the night” (177).

“Perfection is hard to stomach” (183).

a year tells you so very little

I’ve been scrolling through old pages of this blog. Writing is absolutely humiliating, but I have to write. In scrolling through old posts, I came across some of the old stuff from last winter and spring, where I was bravely trying to sort through the fog of having my life turned upside down. I was saying things like, “I feel okay,” and “This doesn’t feel wrong, necessarily,” and in hindsight I can see how hard I was trying to convince myself that I was okay, when I was not okay.

In “cycling,” I wrote “In about a year, I’m sure I’ll have much more clarity over the situation,” which makes me feel such compassion for that girl. “No,” I want to say. “No, you won’t have more clarity in a year, my dear. This year will be one of the most painful and terrible years you will endure. You will not be okay.”

One year later, maybe the only clarity I have is that I was completely undone last year, and I own that now. I’ll never be the same, and I no longer try to say things like, “I like my life now,” or “This makes sense,” because it does not make sense. The only thing I’ve learned a year later is to own that painful truth more than I could a year ago.

Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

Outline by Rachel Cusk was something different. I haven’t read popular fiction in quite a long time, and I was worried when, in the beginning, the main character becomes engaged in a conversation with her “neighbor” on a flight to Athens. Through his line of questioning, we learn a little about the protagonist, which felt like a plot point contrived solely for the purpose of giving the reader information about the main character.

However, I liked the book and found the brilliance in that, as the protagonist meets several different characters, there are interesting and universal insights to be gained about human nature. For the most part, the characters themselves are very self-aware and analytical, sharing meaningful insights with the protagonist. Though, like all people, their assessment is not always accurate. Cusk presents these quirks and character flaws in entirely novel ways, but they resonate as true and important glimpses into the human psyche.

Interestingly, as the protagonist meets the various characters, Cusk’s voice or tone remains consistent throughout. So, there is little sense of the individuality of these characters. In many ways, the novel reads like an outline, a sketch, of the characters and ideas that Cusk is presenting.

The last character to enter the novel speaks about a troubling condition she’s gained, which she calls “summing up.” It prohibits her writing because just as she really gets in to writing a play, she finds the meaning creeping into her brain, words like “tension,” “mother-in-law,” or “meaninglessness.” Once she finds the significance of her work, she loses interest. In the summing up concept, the reader sees the ways in which Cusk has both avoided and indulged a summing up of the various characters and meanings in her own novel.

This section was also meaning to me because I’ve been stricken by the same sense of summing up since my early 20s. I was probably 21 when I realized, with a start, that every story is the same with few uninteresting variations. This is why I have a hard time with popular fiction. I have a longstanding joke, which is likely only amusing to me, that is called “I saw it the first time when it was called…,” wherein I liken every new book or movie to a book or movie that came before and grumpily deduce that it will offer nothing new.

Furthermore, I see the same patterns play out not just in movies, but in real people in real lives. I rarely think anyone is ever having a unique experience, and the result of that is, I suppose, a somewhat jaded view of the world. I’ve never known anyone else to sum things up quite like I do, and so to see it portrayed in a novel was strangely validating.

Here are a few ideas from the novel that I think render further discussion:

  • “The bump in the road hadn’t only upset his marriage; it caused him to veer off on to a different road altogether, a road that was but a long, directionless detour, a road he had no real business being on and that sometimes he still felt himself to be travelling even to this day” (15).
  • “The memory of suffering had no effect whatever on what they elected to do: on the contrary, it compelled them to repeat it” (18).
  • “We are all addicted to it, he said…the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality” (99).
  • “I had friends in Athens I could have called. But I didn’t call them: the feeling of invisibility was too powerful” (248).

What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus

I heard rave reviews about What Happened, Miss Simone? at Sundance this year, but I didn’t get to see it at the time. As luck would have it, KRCL and the SLC Library brought it back for a free screening in Salt Lake. The producer, Amy Hobby, took questions from KRCL’s Eugenie Hero Jaffe. So, that was fun!

But, the film. The film. Nina Simone wasn’t on my radar until maybe five or six years ago, when someone posted a video of her performance of “I’ve Got Life” on Facebook. I watched it many times and got a few of her cds and now it’s a part of my life. I sing her songs with some frequency.

The film creates an arc and fall for her life, which was certainly messier and less clear in the living. She was dedicated to the piano at a young age. This dedication ran parallel to extreme oppression, where any wrong move could lead to abuse or even death by lynching. No wonder a small child would cling to something, anything—perfection. She was poised to be the first black concert pianist. She ended up paying the bills by performing in night clubs. One thing lead to another, and she became the preeminent jazz and blues singer of her era and beyond.

As the civil rights movement picked up, so too did her purpose. Her songs became more political. Her artistic passion and creativity flourished like never before, but her music was banned by many stations and venues that did not want to be political. The film outlines her tumultuous relationship with her husband, her relationship with her daughter. The film also reveals her struggle with bipolar disorder, which she dealt with at a time when very little was known about it (even less so than now).

I’m sure she was successful because most people feel the same way, but I really relate to Nina Simone. It’s not just that I’m practicing piano these days. There’s something about watching the slow steady rage building in her throughout this film that seems so very human, and so very understandable. When you have the luxury of not feeling rage, it can seem silly to outsiders. Once it begins to build within you, expressing it in any sort of effective way is nearly impossible.

The rage happens when you begin to feel less free. Like when suddenly, in very real ways, you are losing legal control over what happens to your body, and others lose control over what happens to their bodies, when you feel limited in your ability to move around in the world. Of course we limit our freedoms in various ways, which takes a lifetime to work through, but when others do the harm, that is hard to bear.

The rage happens when you are cracked open by love and that makes you capable of much deeper intensity than ever before. It’s all very thrilling and terrifying, and some people call it bipolar, and some people call it art, and they are not the same, but there is a shared relationship to control, creating, being, and doing things…differently.

Simone works, and works hard, to translate her rage into something useful, into art, into commentary relevant to the time period. She does this beautifully. Like good theory, the music and lyrics sometimes seem deceivingly simple, but build and grow in their complexity until you are moved to something completely new.

Leaving the film, I felt renewed. What might I do with my own moods, my own passions? How might I better express myself creatively? How might I create? I have some ideas. I do.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

After reading books like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, and Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, I was excited to read this latest one by a comedian. I’m a die hard fan of Saturday Night Live. I tend to love the work that comes from their alums–probably because they know all the good writers. Of her SNL bits, I mostly loved the ensemble skits she was in. Leslie Knope, the character she’s gone on to play in Parks and Recreation, is just great. When it comes to Amy Poehler, I like her, but I think she’s best in collaborative efforts.

Her book was not a favorite. If you’re a die hard fan and will read anything related to SNL, then read it. Otherwise, it’s okay to skip this one. There are funny moments, there are insightful moments, there’s biographical information, and there’s behind the scenes stuff from her work in comedy. But, there’s also a difficult self consciousness that doesn’t always work. Throughout, she complains about how hard and terrible it is to write a book, and those feelings begin to wear off on the reader. The book is repetitive in some ways that don’t seem intentional. The book’s organization is baffling. More importantly, the pages are thick and weird and glossy. What is probably supposed to be “good quality” comes off as too slick, and it makes the book too heavy. It will hurt your wrists while you are reading it in bed.

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

Here are a few lines for further discussion:

  • “Make sure he’s grateful to be with you” (202). This wisdom is via Poehler’s mother. It’s simple, but it resonated with me. I’ve had a few relationships for which I am (and was) very grateful. Like, look around at the sun shining and birds chirping and thank my lucky stars kind of grateful every day. With other people, not so much. Your level of gratitude for the other person says a lot.
  • “Hairspray was king, and the eighties silhouette…was big hair, giant shoulder pads, chunky earrings, thick belts, and form-fitting stretch pants. My silhouette was an upside-down triangle. Add in my round potato face and hearty eyebrows and you’ve got yourself a grade-A boner killer” (207-08). See, there were plenty of lolz! (Also, I want to reintroduce “grade-A boner killer” into more of my conversations.)
  • “And I count myself very lucky. That is what “very lucky” feels like. Oof” (235). These sentences ended a long paragraph on the various violences Poehler has endured–muggings, physical and sexual harassment, sexual violence–but never rape. She makes a powerful point here.
  • “‘Smile’ doesn’t really work either. Telling me to relax or smile when I’m angry is like bringing a birthday cake into an ape sanctuary. You’re just asking to get your nose and genitals bit off” (236). I like this for two reasons. One, being told to “smile” is a weird thing that men say to women. To be on the receiving end of this kind of command feels icky. Two, I love making jokes about ape violence despite the fact that it rarely draws laughs. I’m glad to see Poehler going for it here.
  • “[I]f you do start crying in an argument and someone asks why, you can always say, “I’m just crying because of how wrong you are” (237). This one made me laugh, and I hope I have the wherewithall to use it sometime.

**Edit: There’s also this place where she tells a story of having a casting director ask her to share her most embarrassing story. Poehler refused and didn’t get the job. Then, she told the reader that you don’t have to tell people your most embarrassing story when they ask. I liked that.

an update on the hosta

For the past month, each morning, I have opened the backdoor, walked down the steps with a cup of coffee and carefully the examined the blank space of dirt where the hosta should be. The ground is somewhat covered in leaves. I thought I remembered that strange spear coming up out of the ground earlier in the year last year. It was a mild winter, but I always worry about my outdoor plants regardless.

Hostas are such weird things. Mine is a “sum and substance,” which is the biggest of the hosta varieties. This one is fragrant too. Most hosta blooms are not. Hostas are spooky. I literally jump when I see the spear for the first time each spring.

Last year, it looked like a horned monster rising up from the earth. This year, I was sure it was dead, that is until this weekend when I spotted some horrific looking spikes coming up out of the earth. It looked like a stegosaurus. There were three spikes this time, which means that not only did the hosta survive the winter, it propagated. I can’t wait to watch it grow. Here’s a picture of it looking as terrifying as ever.

hosta spears April 2015

hosta spears April 2015