February 29, 2012
The whole time I was watching this:
…I was thinking of this:
The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything. “You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful….”
Now would you like to see something incredibly eerie…?
How often do the people we say have no hearts, in fact have the greatest ones?
Who are the people who tell us that they’re not worth having?
August 25, 2011
Last summer, I wrote a post rather emotionally detailing my issues with the thinking behind a new reality show, NERD GIRLS, which was then in the casting process. That post (Real nerd girls; June 2, 2010) has by far and away generated the most page views to my blog of anything that I’ve written…though not always in the way I might’ve imagined or intended.
See, WordPress has this nifty feature whereby you can see which search engine terms are bringing readers to your blog. The following are some of the actual phrases that internet surfers have entered into search engines which brought them to my post “Real nerd girls.”
“real nerd girls” (Okay, fair enough.)
“actual nerdy girls”
“real pretty nerd ladies”
“hot nerd girl not real nerd” (Yeah, well, sorry to disappoint you.)
“sexy girl in renaissance dress fuck” (I admit to being particularly impressed by this searcher’s ability to spell “renaissance” correctly.)
“hot actual nerd girls?” (The tone of that question mark is just so forlorn….)
“nerd girls in short skirts”
“live nerd girls looking for me” (Uh, no.)
“romantic girls girls hot sexy just engineers real” (Dude… )
“fetish pics from women in waders” (……. )
But then there was one that actually broke my heart.
“I don’t want to be a nerd anymore.”
I have no way of knowing who the searcher was who made this request, and I rather doubt that he or she is still reading, obviously having not found the solution here. But, I don’t know, just in case…or in case anyone else comes looking…
At risk of sounding patronizing, which is not my intention…I know how hard it is. I really do. I won’t try to minimize what you’re going through, because I’m sure you’ve got enough people trying to do that. I remember only too well what it’s like to feel awkward, ugly, left out, and like no one gives a damn about you.
But I can’t tell you how not to be a nerd, because I don’t know…and I’m not sure I’d tell you even if I knew. Because here’s what I do know:
High school (or, god forbid, middle school?) is not the best time of your life. Do not believe anyone who tells you it is, or that it should be. Life gets far better for nerds after high school in most cases. The adult world is much, much kinder to nerds than the adolescent world is.
Nerds are not superficial beings. What makes you a nerd isn’t on the surface, so there’s nothing you can do to yourself cosmetically that will make you not a nerd. Not makeup or prettier hair. Not better clothes, cuter shoes, or any amount of waxing or plucking. Not mani/pedicures, piercings or tattoos. Some of the most sexy and attractive people I know are still nerds. If you’re a nerd, you’re a nerd all the way through.
Nerds believe that knowledge matters, that information matters, and that truth matters. You might manage to hide or suppress that belief for social convenience, for a limited amount of time, but I doubt you can make yourself unbelieve it.
Nerds are passionate. Nerds are intensely interested in how the world works. Nerds thrive in places where bottomless passion is valued rather than scorned. Nerds care about the world around them.
Nerds tend to be very, very good at what they do, and doing something they love, because they do it for its own sake and not for what other people think. (And we don’t just do science or technology, but also all the arts and humanities, teaching, politics…anything that takes passion and attention to detail. Don’t let anyone try to push you into science or math just because you’re smart if that’s not what you want. I know dancers and actors who are Ivy League grads with higher SAT scores than me. You don’t owe anyone whatever use of your intelligence they happen to want from you.)
Nerds are in touch with their own inner lives.
Nerds never lose the ability to be amazed.
Nerds are genuine. Nerds aren’t ashamed to be sincere.
Nerds aren’t embarrassed to take things seriously, but also know how not to take themselves too seriously.
Because nerds aren’t addicted to popularity or social approval, they’re better at standing up for what’s right, and standing up for other people, even when it’s unpopular.
And in my experience with people, because nerds remember how hard it was to be young, they make nicer adults.
So to not be a nerd anymore, you’d have to somehow smother your curiosity, your sense of wonder, your joy for whatever it is that you love, your empathy, sincerity, and inclination to think for yourself. Now, you MIGHT be able to accomplish that–again, I wouldn’t know how–but my strong suspicion is that, much like the making of a Horcrux, it might seem like a cool idea from the outset, but the actual process would do such violence to the integrity of your soul that it would be soooo not worth it in the end.
Please reconsider? At least just give it some time. Because all the happiest people I know are the ones who have figured out how to accept themselves for who they truly are. And most of the very most wonderful people I know are nerds.
August 5, 2011
“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.
But that’s all.”
July 8, 2011
I have not meant to take such a long break from blogging. I wish I could say I’ve been accomplishing something immense and impressive, but I have not been. I’ve been job hunting, resume-updating, and finally filing for unemployment, thinking, cleaning my apartment, getting ready for an upcoming dance tour, and doing a lot of coffee shop sitting and reading.
Now I’m sort of out in the country, just outside the village of Pawling, New York. It’s about two hours away from Grand Central Station by train, and a world away in other respects. I’m dogsitting for a very sweet Australian shepherd named Patches, who, true to his sheepdog breeding, will not let me go anywhere alone, even just to the kitchen for another cup of tea. He enjoys Parmesan cheese on his food, understands mostly words that start with ‘b,’ and doesn’t understand why we would go outside for any reason–like reading by the pond or pulling weeds in the garden–other than playing frisbee.
It’s raining softly outside while fireflies wink over the grass, which I just stood outside on the porch watching for a while. The humidity is nearly tangible, and the entire small world of this little community is a deep twilight blue-gray color. I’m writing and listening to the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. I’ve determined that it’s actually impossible to get anything else done with the TV on in the background (I’m way too visually-oriented)…I’ve probably watched more ludicrous television this week alone than I have in the entirety of the last 8 or 10 years (My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Intervention, House, The Matrix Reloaded) and remembered why I do not have and do not want one in my apartment. Actually, I’m semi-seriously developing a hypothesis that depression is so rampant these days because American television is depressing…I swear, even the commercials for anti-depressants are depressing in their absurdity, to say nothing of the commercials for household cleaning products.
I see deer and rabbits in the yard almost every day, and get almost no usable cell phone signal. I realize how much I miss seeing stars.
I’ve made cupcakes and given myself a very unfortunate and painful sunburn across my lower back while out working in the garden. I didn’t think to put sunscreen where there was a gap between my jeans and tank top when I was leaning over.
I’ve become certain, from the distinctly purposeful-sounding rustling and crinkling sounds, that there’s some kind of small nocturnal creature making a home in some stacked grocery bags of junk in my corner of the living room. The dog is not roused to do anything about this situation for me. And I don’t just move away, because this is the only place in the house where I can pick up a wi-fi signal.
And I’m wondering out of nowhere if anyone else remembers a certain children’s book.
I remember this book from the year I was in 3rd grade, or maybe 4th, but I’m sure the book was much older than that. It was on the classroom bookshelf, and I was totally entranced with it. I read it over and over again. And yet cannot remember the name of it.
It was told in the style of a series of fables, about a very wise old legal adviser in the Japanese royal court. People brought seemingly impossible cases to him, and like Solomon, he always had the fair and clever solution. One case was about a wiseguy trying to circumvent a progressive tax law that taxed people based on the number of doors their homes contained by building a house with only windows. One was about a court servant who accidentally broke a priceless vase, for which the normal penalty would be death since she couldn’t hope to repay the cost with all the money that she’d ever earn in her life, and one, my favorite, was about a poor man who lived above a noodle shop. He was starving, but said that as he ate his plain white rice every night, he felt like he was eating a more substantial meal because he enjoyed the smells of the cooking from below so much, they flavored his own meal. So the noodle shop guy wanted to charge him for the food he hadn’t eaten, since he claimed he had enjoyed it just as much as if he had.
I don’t even remember the actual resolution of any of the cases. I don’t remember the title of the book or the author. Googling “children’s book wise old japanese guy” gets me nowhere. So for my blog friends and pen pals old and young, a crowdsource question: Does anyone else recall this book?
May 6, 2011
The New York Times Economix blog reports this week (Dimming Optimism for Today’s Youth) that, for the first time in a long time, a majority of Americans are not optimistic that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents, as they answered the question:
In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, better homes, a better education, and so on. How likely do you think it is that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents–very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?
This isn’t exactly the post that I thought it was going to be. I was going to argue against the implicit assumption of the way the question is phrased–the conflation of greater and greater achievement of material wealth with being qualitatively “better”–as being economically unsustainable, and in the manner of a Red Queen’s Race, actually a recipe for ever-diminishing quality of life. But I wondered then if I was trying to read more into the question than was actually intended for the sake of having an argument, and a blog post.
What if we start instead by questioning what a “good” life is, before we try to quantify likelihood of whatever a “better” one is? What would I include as requisites for a good life?
To love, and be loved in return.
To leave the world a better place than you found it–kinder, safer, more beautiful.
To be able to do work you know is meaningful.
To have a rich internal life, in addition to external relationships to keep you strong.
To serve something higher than yourself.
To be fed, and to be sheltered.
To be known.
To know joy, loyalty, and faith.
To live through grief.
To be content with who you are on some basic level.
To know what it is to be alone, and what it is not to be.
To know your own history, your own narrative.
To be needed.
I can’t fathom a complete life without reading, writing, and music.
And I don’t know that happiness or comfort have much to do with it, so much as satisfaction in their pursuit.
As I look at my list, of course I hope the next generation, and my children if I ever have them, will have a better life, in terms of having more of all of these things. But I couldn’t care less about whether they’ll have more stuff or a bigger house or another advanced degree.
Am I optimistic for them? I’m not sure yet. If they’re able to start exercising some common sense when it comes to environmental protection, if they’ll abandon the suburbs and exurbs for liveable communities again, if they’re more creative, resourceful, skeptical, literate, compassionate, committed to justice and equality, less interested in war and domination, more able to teach themselves, less able, willing or entitled to take any level of material wealth or comfort for granted.
I’m not sure yet.
April 25, 2011
I just finished a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, which I picked up after I saw it referenced in two different places within a short period of time. I don’t believe in coincidences; it’s been my experience that when the universe presents things so plainly and repeatedly to me, it’s because they’re going to mean something significant to me.
I requested a copy from the library first, but returned it and went and bought a copy after I loved the first chapter that much. My apartment is small; I have to be selective about buying books.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is written very much in the heritage of Thoreau’s Walden. In 1971, Dillard lived near Tinker Creek, in Virginia, and wrote about finding immense significance in the abundance, intricacy and violence of her ecological neighborhood over the course of a year. It’s a wonderful book to read in the spring.
I was particularly struck by what she says about the human quality of innocence:
Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time….It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds persue hares: singlemindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurtling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open-mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking in their lungs.
What I call innocence is the spirit’s unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration.
We’re so accustomed to thinking of innocence as a negative state: as a lack of knowledge, a lack of sexual experience, a lack of maturity, something to be overcome. Even in more desirable terms, “lack of guile or corruption; purity,” in the phrasing of my New Oxford American Dictionary, innocence is defined by absence, by lack. In Dillard’s conception, by contrast, innocence is a positive, nearly palpable state of intensity, a potentiality, a spark, not only the absence of self-consciousness but a presence–devotion–and the capacity for active pursuit of joy.
I wish that we valued innocence more in this way, rather than infantilizing and dismissing it. For example:
A picture of devotion, fittingly, to a man who gave us so much by pursuing it himself.
March 29, 2011
For the vast majority of my life, I never felt like I had much in common with other girls. Most of the people who ever tormented or abused me were girls or women, and so before I was very old, I didn’t have much desire left to have anything in common with them. I could never call myself a feminist. I read Mary Pipher’s much-discussed book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, in high school, thinking “surely this expert will be able to articulate what’s really wrong with my life and then I’ll be able to explain it to everyone who’s getting it wrong (and not least of all, to myself).”
I was bitterly disappointed. It was a marvelous book (and I still think so), but it was like reading a very fascinating book about a completely alien species. Not me.
Then there was a sequel of sorts, Ophelia Speaks, a compilation of teen girls’ own responses and reflections on their lives and the original book, seeking to let girls speak for themselves about their lives and somewhat fill in the gaps they felt were left in Pipher’s book. I ran out to buy it. “Now someone will tell the truth for me, surely now someone will get it right!” I thought.
Nope. It was another fascinating book, this time in the words of the fascinating aliens themselves. But I recognized myself nowhere among them. I started to accept that either there were no girls like me anywhere, or I wasn’t a real girl at all. I don’t even remember there being any women who made me think “I could grow up to be like that.”
And then (to make a very long story short), I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and in reading the blogs and books of other autistic women and developing supportive relationships with them, I found a way to identify with other women at all for the first time.
I don’t write much about my work, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been no big secret lately that I’ve been working on a particularly difficult production, which has taken more or less everything out of me in the past couple months. It was a choral music piece called From the Fire, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had its 100th anniversary this past week. On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, either burned or jumped to their deaths because they were locked in on the 9th floor of the factory building near Washington Square when a fast-moving fire broke out in a bin of cotton scraps. The tragedy proved a watershed moment in the social history of America, for workers’ rights and unions, mandates for workplace safety, and voting rights for women.
Within the first couple weeks, the rehearsal process had become so hard that I felt myself starting to shut down emotionally and detach myself from any real feeling for the show, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted, since what this kind of show can accomplish is exactly the reason that I wanted to work in theater in the first place.
Then one night in vocal rehearsal, I sang along silently in my head as the chorus of girls sang a line of a song: “Blessed are you oh lord our God who made me a woman, yes, a woman who can work.” And it hit me: I am one of these girls–the ones in front of me. I was there to look out for them, backed up by a strong union, in no small part because of what happened to the girls of Triangle. Performing artists are still a vulnerable population in many ways, and I was one of them, and as hard as things were still going to get, my job was to protect them. I was there to be on their side.
In the final song of the show, a cascading canon of voices sing out the names of girls of the Triangle factory, both survivors and the dead. The performers had been directed to abruptly face outwards, to an individual member of the audience, as each one sang her line. It wasn’t until the third performance, which happened to fall on the actual anniversary of the fire, that I realized that one of the student actresses, in the down right corner of the stage, was turning directly to me (where I was calling the show from an improvised platform) when she sang “Lizzie will be remembered.” I teared up. I couldn’t hold her gaze for more than a moment.
I could practically feel the ghosts of the Triangle girls around me.
And they were all my girls.
More on the production:
From the Fire production homepage
March 2, 2011
A friend shared this video on Facebook the other night; it’s several years old, being from the 10th Anniversary concert of Les Misérables, in which 17 actors who have played Jean Valjean in productions from around the world join in singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.”
I remember reading the book in high school, and then seeing the musical, and mostly wondering whether, if it came down to it, I’d be capable of the incredible acts of bravery and love that characters like Valjean, Marius and Eponine were. I wonder it again now as I follow the coverage of the democratic uprisings in Yemen, Egypt, and Libya. I often wonder how much what looks like bravery in retrospect only felt like the only possible or acceptable thing to do at the time.
So I dedicate this to all the brave people of the Middle East.
Note: Copyright issues apparently will not allow the embedded video to play here. Use the link provided in the error message to watch it on YouTube. Sorry!
January 23, 2011
I took some pictures on my digital camera in the last couple weeks, of the latest New York Snowpocalypse (can it really be the “snowpocalypse” if it happens every year?) in Central Park, and of certain mysterious phenomena of my apartment. When I went to upload them to my computer, there were a dozen pictures in the batch that I’d forgotten were on the camera, from a short, whirlwind trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado back in August for my cousin’s wedding. I remembered I’d disregarded them because most of them were taken quickly, some from a moving ski lift, and my camera’s battery was having trouble deciding whether or not it was imminently dying, so I’d assumed they couldn’t have turned out very well and written them off. But a few of them were okay.
What strikes me is the huge sense of peace that emanates from them, even though very little about the weekend, and nothing about my life at the time was peaceful in the slightest. A lot was going on personally. I had gotten a 6 AM flight to Denver and was delirious from going nearly 24 hours without sleep at one point, and cranky and strung out from altitude sickness. I was working on two shows at the time–one going perfectly swimmingly but the other descending rapidly into hell–and was in close contact all weekend with my partner stage manager concerning the latter one, and playing frantic phone tag with two other people about the schedules of possible upcoming gigs. There was apparently some family drama that I didn’t even hear about until much later.
Only far in retrospect is that bright, sparklingly vivid tranquility that was there the whole time apparent to me, as I take a last few peaceful hours to myself this morning, before I begin tomorrow my next long, hard slog through a production that I can already tell is going to take everything out of me for the next couple months. It’s like the assurance of peace only now caught up to me in time, or I caught up to it. The sense is resonant of a verse of one of my current favorite songs:
I am assured, yes, I am assured, yes, I am assured that peace will come to me.
A peace that can, yes, surpass the speed, yes, of my understanding and my need.
–Josh Ritter, “Lark”
A thought that I’m going to try to hang on to…as it’s becoming apparent that my next few weeks are going to feel more like this:
November 29, 2010
So the group American Atheists has put up this billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey:
I’m not even going to get started on the billboard’s implications that faith and reason are mutually exclusive conditions of being. Or that only atheists are reasonable people. Or that all religious belief is literal and simpleminded. Or its smarmy pretenses to intellectual superiority. Or the fact that–though it’s sadly true that atheists have for many years endured inexcusable insults, abuse, and persecution from believers–lumping all Christian believers together into a stereotype, insulting their intellectual capacity, and spitting on the significance of their holiday is probably not the greatest way to win friends, allies, respect or acceptance.
What I do want to critique is the billboard’s chief assertion–which I hear from some atheists quite frequently–that religious beliefs amount to nothing more than myth, or even fairy tale. (And I say SOME atheists, because most I know do not go around insulting other people’s beliefs just because they don’t share or understand them. Just like most of the religious people I know don’t believe, or go around telling atheists, that they’re amoral devil worshipers who are all going to hell unless they’re saved by Jesus.)
Yes, I know it’s a myth, thanks very much. I’m a Christian, and I know that the Christmas story is a myth.
But atheists who condescendingly call religious stories myths and fairy tales actually aren’t succeeding in insulting religion. They’re showboating their own ignorance and shallowness by belittling the cultural and emotional importance of myth and fairy tale.
When we think of “myths,” most of us probably think first of the Greek and Roman myths, which maybe we learned in school, and were probably told that they were the way that ancient people explained natural phenomena like the seasons because they didn’t have science yet. So we got the impression that myths are simplistic stories that ignorant people make up for themselves to explain what they otherwise can’t.
And “fairy tales” now carry a strong connotation of “Disney” in American culture–sweet and fanciful stories to comfort children with, which always have happy endings.
But neither of these is historically accurate. Most people know by this time that the original fairy tales of medieval Europe were not at all what Disney later made of them; they were dark and frightening and contained more than ample murder, rape, child abuse, grinding poverty, evil, and sorrow and suffering of every kind. And they didn’t sugarcoat or dumb down the reality of these things for children. They weren’t told to distract children from the horrors of their daily existence, but to illustrate, symbolically, how to confront and cope with them.
And to really be familiar with the Greek/Roman, Scandinavian, Celtic, ancient Japanese, or any other culture’s collection of myths, they’re not superficial or simplistic little stories about why we have seasons; they’re incredibly multidimensional, psychologically rich narratives about a culture’s conceptions of its relation to morality, fate, death, nature, birth and renewal, eternity, and love.
And we’re still telling and retelling those stories, every day, in every possible medium–in movies, books, music, theater and dance. In comic books, even. We’re still moved and educated and entertained by them. Not because we think that they’re literally or factually true, but because they have powerful emotional and intuitive resonance with timeless human experiences that can be hard to articulate or accept in literal ways. Not because we unquestioningly believe them, but because they make us question. They are supposed to make us think more deeply about our own lives, not stop thinking.
So it doesn’t offend me when anyone calls religious experiences and stories myths. Because they are, in the best sense of the word. They give common voice to the most difficult and intimate of human experiences. What’s maddening is when people hurl “myth” as an insult, without any apparent understanding of what they’re saying. It reveals much more about their own disdain for what they don’t understand than it does about the significance of religious celebration.