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I Saw You

Some years ago, while reading the Kokinshu for the first time, I was struck by a thought that many of the love poems read like I Saw You ads in the local alternative weekly newspaper. In the Kokinshu, seasons follow arcs—there is the first hint of green with herbs breaking through snow, then the kaleidoscope of flowers, seventy poems about cherry blossoms, then summer comes a we listen to the nightingale for a season. Love and grief also follow arcs—with love, there’s a giddy first hint, then getting to know all about one another, and finally, breaking up. In the beginning of the love section, a poet might glimpse a beauty across the fields of Kasuga and become instantly entranced.

An I Saw You ad, in case you have never heard of one, is a record of a missed opportunity. You might have a conversation with a gorgeous stranger in the frozen food aisle at the grocery and go home kicking yourself for not having asked for a name or a phone number or a date. Or you might make eye contact at a stoplight and want something more. All you would have to do is phone the alternative paper (here call the Alibi) and place an ad with some details about your moment.

I am teaching a freshman humanities course (a “legacy course”) that in part follows the influence of ancient Japanese (the Kokinshu and Basho) and Chinese (Han Shan) poetry on the Beat Generation (Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac) and our contemporary world. The “legacy courses” strive to provide students with knowledge of works and ideas from earlier cultures that have played and continue to play significant roles in understanding the contemporary culture in which we live.

So, my class is also looking at questions such as why does Albuquerque have an annual haiku contest, Japanese botanical gardens, a Zen meditation center, an Asian grocery store, a bunch of anime lovers and martial arts enthusiasts, etc.

In my attempt to bridge the ancient text with our lives, I thought I would bring in some I Saw Ad clippings, have the students write waka (a poem with a 5-7-5-7-7) using the information in the ads, then compare our poems with the those of the ancients. Here are some examples:

Girl at Casino (8/11/14)

I saw you on Monday at Santa Ana Star Casino, near the back area by “The Stage” around 1:30–2:30pm. You were wearing glasses and with a woman I assume was your mother. I was walking up to a machine when we made eye contact for a split second before I looked away … I wanted to talk to you but wasn’t thinking. You are beautiful and I can’t stop thinking about you! If you see this please respond; maybe we can go out to a casino or have dinner sometime and get to know each other :)

Spinning slots at the
Santa Ana Casino
you must be lucky
trying to win money
and winning my heart as well

Read more »

Amazon, Dissonance, and the Influence of Others

Colbert is "mad prime" about Amazon's tactics.

Colbert is “mad prime” about Amazon’s tactics.

I unliked Jeff Bezos before I liked him.

The reason I disliked Bezos and his company, Amazon, is pretty simple. My friends disliked them first. I realize that makes me sound like a lemming, but let’s be honest. Our friends have a lot of sway over how we feel about things. They influence our politics, our ambition, and our musical preferences. They help determine our buying behavior. I don’t drink Starbucks, shop at Wal-Mart, or buy Nike products, at least in some part due to the influence of my friends. And generally speaking, my friends don’t approve of Amazon. In this case, when I say friends, I mean a particular subset of my friends and acquaintances. I mean writers.

In the taxonomy of my Facebook friends, the categories, in descending order, are writers, former students, Peace Corps volunteers, people I knew in college or high school, and colleagues. Notice writers right there at the top? They are the people who most influence my mental space, insofar as that space exists on social media.

The writers I know are diverse and brilliant, and they are generally progressive – they, and I, tend to support the ACA and the DREAM act. They want to see assault weapons banned. They were down on DOMA before it was cool. They have equal signs stuck on their bike fenders and tattooed on their ankles. They’re also largely traditional in the way they pursue publication. They tend to take the slow road to getting published, sending the results of their long hours in front of laptops in coffee shops to editors, who the writers hope will find merit in the carefully crafted pages. Of course, it’s subjective. Of course, the writers are rejected. The rejection slips come, and the writers save them, delete them, maybe even frame them. They revise. They send the work out again. Onward.

Alternatively, they can take the fast lane to publication. It’s so easy! Just set up an account on Amazon and find the link that says “Independently publish with us.” Upload. Click. Done. Published. Right?

Few of the writers I know seem to engage in self-publishing beyond personal or shared blogs, like this one. Perhaps it’s because we distrust a system that has no checks and balances – if no editor is approving your work, who’s to say, other than you, that it’s any good? Perhaps it’s indicative of writerly technophobia. We love our paper books. We don’t want the system to change.

But some do. Read more »

Here is what we know.

Tonight, a football game will be played between two teams in the National Football League. The Baltimore Ravens will face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It will be televised to millions of fans. Rihanna has agreed to sing the opening song.*

We know that Ray Rice, star running back for the Baltimore Ravens, physically assaulted his then-fiancée Janay Palmer. We know that Rihanna was physically assaulted by Chris Brown. We know that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault on three separate occasions. We know that current Raven Terrell Suggs was accused of physical abuse numerous times by his longtime girlfriend, including punching her in the neck, dragging her alongside a speeding car, and kicking her in the face so hard her nose broke—all of those incidents with their two young children present.

We know that this is too much to bear. Not as women. As humans.

We know that today is the anniversary of a terrible day in our country’s history. We know that everyone grieves differently, that some people prefer to do their grieving publicly, while others prefer to do so privately. We know that our nation’s response to a series of terrible things happening was to become wildly patriotic, and to share those expressions of patriotism as loudly and publicly as possible.

We know that during tonight’s football game, patriotism will be invoked in a mixture of direct and subtle ways. Like any good marketing campaign, it will be pounded into our brains that to love football is to love America. Because not loving America is inherently wrong, we will be shown, not loving football is not only un-American, it’s practically indicative of treason. Count how many times you see the American flag on television tonight, if you watch. If you can stomach it.

We knew months ago that a) Janay Palmer walked into an elevator of her own accord and b) was dragged out unconscious less than a minute later by the only other occupant of that elevator, a man who makes millions of dollars per year using his brute strength and talent to excel at one of the most violent sports on earth. We knew because there was video of their entrance and exit. We knew because Ray Rice admitted to police, to the NFL, to the public, that he’d hit his fiancée.

We know how Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, responded to that video of the couple entering the elevator arguing, followed by footage of Ray Race dragging a woman’s lifeless body out of the elevator. He responded by suspending him from his job for two games. Roger Goodell watched Ray Rice use the toe of his sneakers to shove his woman where he wanted her to go, not caring that her dress was hiked up around her waist and that the lower half of her body was exposed. He watched them walk into the elevator together and then he watched an NFL player drag an unconscious woman out of it, and he gave that man a gentle but loving timeout of two games away from his prestigious job.

We know that pundits and apologists said, “We can’t know what happened in that elevator. Both people said they were at fault. She even said she hit him first.”

We can’t know what happened inside that elevator, they said.

Except that we did know. Long before the second video was released, we did know. We just didn’t want to know.

Read more »

What Makes You Feel Beautiful?

Two months ago, I posted about Esther Honig’s project where she sent out a picture of herself to graphic designers all over the world with the words “make me beautiful” as the only direction.

Today, I want examine internal validation of beauty, instead of looking at how external factors judge what makes us desirable.

How would you answer the question: What makes You Feel Beautiful?

In a recent social experiment aimed at capturing different visions of beauty and document participants’ own impressions of what makes them feel beautiful,  the eBay Fashion Blog team sent photographers Alizon Luntz and Viola Gaskell out on the streets of New York and Seattle to ask 80 random people just that question.

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People listed family, exercise, the outdoors, and even brushing their teeth essentials to their feelings of being beautiful. One of my favorite answers comes from one of the Seattle people: “Life just makes me feel happy and beautiful–waking up every day and looking at all the beauty in the world.”

I wish I could wake up feeling like that every day.

Short and chunky, I’ve never measured up to the standard ideal of beauty. Something I came to terms with a long time ago. My own answer would probably be closer to another Seattleite’s answer: “What makes me feel beautiful is my accomplishments, big and small.

Accomplishments and challenges are linked to confidence for me. I like to challenge myself to do new things and accomplish hard goals, reaching those goals makes me feel confident. And when I’m confident, I feel beautiful.

Check out all the pictures and answers from the experiment and then share what makes you feel beautiful in the comments below.

You can follow the Tweets that started with this experiment by searching for #MakesMeFeelBeautiful.

The Neighbors

Today is the seventeenth day. I didn’t mean to begin counting but after the tenth day, I couldn’t help but notice. It’s been seventeen days since I saw any of my neighbors. In theory, there should be five humans, one for each of the five doors besides ours in this building on the second floor, but of course,  it could be more. It might not seem all the strange to you, that I haven’t seen a single soul in the hallway outside of our apartment for seventeen days, but as an unemployed person who spends most of her days going in and out, it’s becoming more and more bizarre. When we first moved in, I saw the man across the hall at least once a day as he was taking his small dog for a walk. He always spoke, or least nodded, and he seemed like a good omen.

But I haven’t seen him or anyone else for seventeen days. I know that I’m hypersensitive to neighbors. A few months ago I was living in the motel my boyfriend was renovating. Our neighbors changed daily; it was important to take note of who was gone and who was still there for personal safety reasons. And yet the upstairs neighbors at the motel, who apparently practiced their WWE wrestling moves before bed each night never left. Even before living in the motel, I was working and residing on a college campus. Read more »

Boyhood: The Power of Generalities in Storytelling

Boyhood

Watching a boy grow up on screen with his fictional family is genuinely moving.

Yes. This movie is as good as they say, and yes, you should go see it if you haven’t already. Here’s the thing to know before you go: It’s best to view this movie as an ethnography of the American childhood, specifically the childhood of this boy, Mason, who we get to watch grow up before our eyes from age six to eighteen, but also that of his older sister, Samantha (Richard Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) who is lovely and provides an important female counterweight to her brother in this family that is so American-generic that any of us can likely place ourselves within it.

This isn’t a romantic comedy or an action flick or a psychological thriller. It’s a straight forward coming-of-age story, and if you remember anything about growing up, you’ll remember that there’s a lot of small shit-happening-to-you kinds of events (school, weekends with dad) and a little of you-making-decisions-and-screwing-up stuff happening (not doing homework, lost virginity), but in general, most of the time, life for most people is pretty undramatic, and that’s the case in Boyhood, too. No one dies or gets cancer or goes on a great big adventure. No one has a disability or is abused or is a beautiful genius, shaping the character in extraordinary ways. But through the lack of drama, and I’d argue because of it, we’re delivered a “story” (albeit without the typical story arc) that is dramatically, emotionally honest and emblematic of what it feels like to discover ourselves incrementally as we do in real life. We also get to see the adults in this movie “come of age,” if you will. They, like most of us, are lost most of the time, and their lack of wisdom is refreshing.

I was most impressed by Linklater’s ability to provide us with moments that could be from any family in America, even though this family is indeed white and middle class, which obviously doesn’t represent all American families in a literal sense. However, most of us can relate to annoying siblings, neighborhood friends, divorce, road trips, homework, teachers who rat you out to your parents, teachers who badger you to be better, step-parents who fuck with your head, first loves, peer pressure, crappy food service jobs, heartbreak, imperfect parents, and a little marijuana smoking. In his low-key way, Linklater uses these moments to question (and kind of answer) the meaning of life. He takes these generalities, makes them just generic enough to fit your own life, and invites you in. This movie doesn’t wrap its characters’ lives up in neat packages, ending with a message of grace and understanding. No. This movie leaves everything a mess, as it should be, as it really is. For that reason, this movie is brilliant and beautiful.

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Storytelling as Community, as Healing

After Asa’s great post about how storytelling affects our decision making, I started thinking about how storytelling could play a role in the careers of people who aren’t writers. I found this great video from storytelling.org, the website for the Center for Digital Storytelling, about forensic nurses and digital storytelling. The mission of the Center for Digital Storytelling is “to promote the value of story as a means for compassionate community action.”

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I know many of the contributors to this blog have taught, or currently teach, creative writing. My question for those with this type of experience is: In what ways has being a promoter of storytelling brought about change in your life or the life of someone else?

Stories Sway Our Decisions

Last month, I attended a writers conference where Lisa Cron presented a master workshop on how neuroscience discoveries can help your story telling (and your writing). I had to leave early for an appointment, but Ms. Cron’s ideas about the importance of story telling and how stories influence our everyday decisions stuck with me.

So, I looked her up when I got home and found a TEDx talk by her. The video is a little more than 17 minutes long, but worth watching just for the share pleasure of discovering that stories–and therefore writers (hyberbole added by me)–are more important than we think.

In Ms. Cron’s words:

“We turn to stories not to escape reality; we turn to stories to navigate reality.”

and

“If you can’t feel emotion, you can’t make a single rational decision.”

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“The Power of story is yours, use it wisely.”

Stage Fright

School is about to start, which means I am fiddling with my syllabi. One class is brand new, and I believe that I could mess with a new syllabus for all of eternity, tweaking phrases, adding and erasing assignments, rearranging scheduled activities. This perpetual revising tick will continue until the class begins, which is probably why I have the following anxiety dream:

 It is the first day of the class and once I walk into the classroom, I realize that I have forgotten to bring the name cards that I make for my students each semester. Not only do I not have their name cards, but I don’t have the class list. Also, danggit, I have forgotten to bring copies of the syllabus. I think that I can bring it up on the projector, but of course, the computer is not working. I struggle to remember anything from the syllabus and cannot. I determine that I can assign a get-to-know-you freewrite while I run to print out copies, which is when I realize that actually, I never made a syllabus. It is the first day and I am unprepared.

My first days of classes have mostly been smooth. The typical hiccup is the AV equipment either malfunctioning or not working at all. Other people are not so lucky. Last year, a worried freshman approached my office, saying, “My professor has not shown up. We don’t know what to do.” The professor in question was not the kind of person to miss the first day unless barred by a major accident. I tried to call the professor, but her phone was off. I met with the students, collected their information, explained that this kind of thing was very rare, and the professor would contact them as soon as possible. It soon came to light that the class had been cancelled, and while the professor had been notified of the change, the students had not.

Another colleague, long since retired, once walked into a class, introduced himself, passed out the syllabus, and discussed at length the course’s objectives and philosophical context before realizing that he was in the wrong classroom.

Due to flooding, this semester, I have lost one, maybe two, of the classrooms I was scheduled to use. Classes do not begin for another week, so I remain hopeful that a new classroom or a tent will be located and reserved, that everyone will be notified, and, if I dare to dream, there will be AV equipment.

None of these examples of first day “oops” compare, of course, to the recent headline on Gawker, “Oklahoma Teacher Shows Up Drunk and Pantsless to Her First Day of Work.” At least it was not the first day of class and no students were subjected to her disorientation, frailty, and alcoholism. It could not have been worse for this woman if it were a dream.

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What about your bad first days? Does your department have a legendary worst first class? Do you still get nervous and do your dreams reflect it?

 

Begin Again, A Summer Retrospective

Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make sense of your life.

Sometimes a good story is all it takes to make sense of your life.

You go to see Begin Again at the cheap theater near your house with your husband to celebrate your second wedding anniversary. This after a six-day visit from your mother — who you’ve been emotionally preparing for since her last visit twelve months ago — and your fourteen-year-old niece who you haven’t seen since she was nine.

The whole trip becomes an act of juggling dull knives, a negotiation between reality and expectation. You pick your mom and niece up from the airport, breath measured, smile painted on. You see yourself in your family’s eyes, you see your faults. And you’re determined not to break or dive too far under the surface of their lives.

But then night falls and you find yourself tucking in your teenage niece at your house, listening to her wondering about your life, sharing hers, and you feel the immensity of her questions, her stories full of implication, clues as to who she’ll be in another year and another and you’re overwhelmed by the weight of it all, these lives crashing into yours.

You’ve always wanted to be a fixer but never knew which tools would do the job.

A week or so before your family arrives, you walk to the park for a picnic with friends. The scene is all urban bucolic: lawn for yards, climbable trees, a tennis court adjacent to the community garden. And then the vagrant guy walks up, kneels down, holds out a blue paper plate, asks for exactly two deviled eggs in a whisper. He has his delivery down to a science. He’s patient, Christlike. You think of that old admonition about treating the ragged and poor and deserted as if they’re Christ returned; you consider letting him in, giving him what you have to give. But before you consider this you grimace and scold him. Please don’t, you say. Your friend chimes in, This is a private party. As if your blankets are locked doors and he’s the wolf threatening to blow down your house.

You leave feeling a little sick at how easy it is to keep a hungry man hungry with piles of food at your disposal. You leave wondering who you really are.

Then you’re sitting by a pool with your mother, telling her all the reasons she’s wrong. About what, you don’t know exactly, but you know these words have to be said even though you see what’s happening in her eyes and you know, too, that you’ve chosen the wrong tools again. What if the right tools don’t exist in your reality, you wonder. What if some lives just stay broken?

Then you’re sitting, arm woven through the arm of your love, in a dark theater watching Mark Ruffalo spiral out and back into control of his life, watching him find the tools, be the fixer. You watch people lose each other and find themselves. You watch a girl fall in love with her father and understand what it means to be beautiful and wanted. You watch Keira Knightley make music artfully and choose not to sell out. You watch lives move like a dance and embrace in understanding. You tell your husband how glad you are that Mark and Keira don’t hook up, that it would ruin their romance. You’re in love with their kind of love: a tight rope, a life raft.

And you know that you’re not exactly sinking or flying and you know that you’re full of something that can be good when it’s not tired or frightened and you tell yourself to keep trying, that someday the tool might be there, just the one you’ve been looking for all these years.

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