Friday, November 07, 2014

The Strange Crucible'd Case Of Lena Dunham

I've been reviewing music and books for Antigravity Magazine since 2011. Most of my reviews have been limited to 200-300 words, which has been both an exhilarating and excruciating challenge depending on the day, the works I review, the weather…you name it, I've written reviews through it (with the exception of Comcast constantly screwing us over on when they said our wifi would be installed - I missed a month of reviewing due to that that I still kick myself a little over). I try to keep what I review relevant to the New Orleans area readers of the magazine while throwing in some things that are of edgy/quasi-underground importance culturally on more of a national level...which is why I decided to review Lena Dunham's Not That Kind Of Girl for AG's November issue. Just after I submitted my short review, I got wind of the hubbub over the Kevin Williamson National Review take on Dunham's book (and, more specifically, the explosion over Truth Revolt's trolling "Lena Dunham is a child abuser" headline regarding the book and the review) and am reexamining what I wrote. After a lot of thought, I stand by what I wrote for AG. What follows is what I was thinking in reviewing Not That Kind Of Girl the way I did.

When Girls got started, I wrote this:
I am repelled, however, by some of what seems to be running through the most popular comedies today that star women, and I doubt that they are signs that things are being "equalized" between the sexes. I don't know that we have reached the point where female characters can screw up just as badly as men can without some major consequences being built into their stories, and without "redemption" including a relationship of some sort as in the movie Bridesmaids. It's kind of what comedies such as The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and Ally McBeal tried to do yet didn't really succeed at: presenting women as people that don't have to be complete airheads or complete superwomen, all one thing or all another. Also - women of color, of other nationalities, of other creeds, anyone? New York is full of those women. Perhaps no one wanted to attempt that for fear of offending any of them. Or, more cynically speaking, they just didn't sell. Not much proven entertainment value.
And this, after watching the first episode & reflecting on my own privilege:
Came across a phrase from critic Glenn Kenny referring to Lena Dunham's film Tiny Furniture that encompassed many of my misgivings about Girls' premise: " does represent the Cinema of Unexamined Privilege, let's face it." Yep, following in the footsteps of Metropolitan, Francis Ford Coppola's short(er) film Life Without Zoe, and - one that dates me some - Reality Bites
In the interests of examining my own privilege, my parents did pay for my health insurance and the charges on one credit card that I rarely used. There was no way in hell I was going to try to lobby for total support from them after college, though - I felt somehow guilty that I was still getting the insurance and the credit card from them. It was in large part what made me uncomfortable when I met people like the guy who had a storefront in Soho that clearly was not doing well selling his wonky glassware. I asked him if he was at all worried about that state of affairs, and he blithely replied,"Oh, I'm not worried. My family won't let me starve."
First, and foremost, Lena Dunham is a grade AA, huge, HUGE neurotic.

In a fictional context, and in much of the arts in general, being a neurotic can be a big advantage. It can be seen as a fount of creativity, a charming quirk, a sign of being edgy and with-it, and an excuse for all sorts of bad behavior. I've only seen season 1 of Girls, now chugging along on HBO into a fourth season, and it appeared, for better and worse, that Dunham had found the perfect medium for a series of trainwrecked stories about mostly privileged twentysomethings fresh out of college and without many clues trying to get by in New York City. She's also found a great cast to put these stories and situations across.

The biggest truth about Girls, however, as is the way with most productions that are out there in the world, is that it isn't for everyone. Its being on HBO, which not everyone can afford (I certainly can't; I piggybacked on a friend's HBO-Go account just to catch season 1) is a big indicator right there. The series' beginnings lie in those of Dunham hooking up professionally with Judd Apatow, who had just had a girl-gross-out hit with Bridesmaids, and in HBO needing a comedy akin to the long-gone Sex And The City that would appeal to a young female demographic. Well, HBO got it, and Dunham got a higher profile from Girls' critical acclaim, its controversial lack of diversity in its casting and its slice of a rarefied (yet still screwed up) set of lives.

Dunham's biggest shtick is being awkward and exhibitionist, all while spinning the dross of uncomfortable situations into understated, comedic fool's gold. I knew that going into my reading of her book Not That Kind Of Girl, so I read most of her tales within the book in that context. She is weird. She dives right into oversharing in a way that has truly shocked the oversharing juggernaut that is the internet - which is really saying something. It was something I and others like me who write reviews probably should have seen coming, but the backlash on certain passages in her book pertaining to her sister is bewildering to me. Was her touching of her sister's vagina when her sister was a year old and she was seven child abuse or normal childhood sexual experimentation? The internet piles on, saying it's the former, professionals say the latter, with the whole thing even inspiring a Tumblr site inviting others to share similar experiences.

None of this is to say that those who have experienced serious sexual assault at a young age should have their experiences suddenly placed under "sexual experimentation." Far from it. But I do question those who ask why Dunham's editor didn't put a lid on her more explicit revelations, as though she needed to be babysat. She's 28 years old and has the right to put what she wants into her book. Besides, the rest of the book contains passages on what it is to stumble through life as an extreme, narcissistic neurotic, to be a woman wanting to learn and to succeed in the television and film industry, and to be a young person still growing and changing that are written quite well and humorously with more than a little bite to them. She is a talented person beneath all of the controversy.

The other thing about Lena Dunham, though, is that she is just a fashion, an "it" girl. Those kinds of girls don't last very long. Threatening to sue the Truth Revolt site for publishing words she wrote ensures that her stock will drop some; canceling her international book tour will cause it to drop further still. All that she will have left will be her writing talent. Time and, hopefully, maturity will tell if she will be able to weather all of this and come away from it a better person, but the odds are now against her (which is partially her doing, sadly). What she will leave behind are questions that still haven't been adequately answered concerning feminism, diversity, privilege, female sexuality, and what it really is to write a memoir. By "adequately answering" such questions, I speak of actual dialogue among human beings rather than online pile-ons...but the pile-ons are all the raging rage. I sure wish that was a fad.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Why I Now Mow

We are not gardeners, my husband and I. It's been a while since I tried to coax anything out of the ground or out of a pot. Our house in New Orleans had paved yards in place of grassy lawns and our property manager took care of trimming what bushes and trees there were and gathering the branches and leaves that dropped. The last time I had to handle an out-of-control patch of weeds running riot between the concrete, I got some saddleback caterpillar stings and had to retreat to get some Sevin pesticide. I imagined New Orleans gardening to be a contact sport for which I was little prepared. It was good to have that load off my brain.

Enter our move to the greater Houston area. For the first time since Dan or I left our parents' homes to lead our own lives, we have a large front and back yard on which grass grows. We are charged with maintaining the yards in our lease. I hired a nice man named Pedro to come with a crew once a month to tackle the pine needles and pinecones of the front yard and the tendency of the backyard to become a thicket only Mutual Of Omaha's Wild Kingdom would love, but the grass still grows, the trees still drop leaves and branches. Three days ago, I took one look at our yards, pulled out the rake and our human-powered push mower, and started to gather the detritus and mow.

I can't say that it's our lease that has motivated me, nor has it been the state of our neighbors' pristine green patches. The homeowners' association sent us a note that gave us ten days to get our lawn like all the others or else, which appealed to Dan's and my passive-aggressive tendencies. "Oh, WELL, let them come!" we said, only to get angry all over again when the property manager for this house asked us about it a month after we got the note. Fine, replant our yard - please! Oh, the woe, the gnashing of teeth over our living in a deed-restricted area.

Replanting our yard isn't happening. Dan doesn't want to put any more money than he has to into a place we're only renting.

Yet here I am, raking and bagging what I can, pushing the mower around in rows and circles, marveling at the loads of pinecones the evergreens are dropping. I saw a bag of cinnamon-scented ones for sale at a craft store. I could stick a sign out in front of our yard and charge people to gather ours, there have been so many. But I'm not into trimming grass and raking for the money.

Our parents are gardeners and yard maintainers, such that it should have been in our DNA to yearn for our own patch of land to mow and cultivate, but the ways in which it was done turned us both off. In my dad, it presented itself as a magnificent obsession that warranted loads of weekend trips to Teas' Nursery, the planting of flower beds that resculpted the yard making mowing the front yard an act of bizarre, spinning intricacy at times, and the constant weeding and plucking of pansy petals. In Dan's house, his father made him and any friends who came over to his house do yard work; Dan made certain to spend chunks of his weekends at other friends' houses.

Dan cannot take the smell of gasoline and other fuel oils in the garage, seeing it as mere storage space rather than a place to park the car, hence his choice of a gasoline-free push mower to cut the grass. "It'll be good exercise for me, anyhow," he said. "I could lose some weight." I can count on one hand the times he's wrestled with the mower - which isn't entirely fair, as we've only been here since July - and his one attempt at taming the backyard with a battery powered weed-eater ended with him throwing in the towel and acquiescing to hiring a professional. I've certainly done a good deal of walking, bending over to pick up errant detritus so that it wouldn't get stuck in the mower blades, and bagging of stuff in the past few days, but that exercise isn't why I trimmed and cleaned our front yard and am slowly getting the backyard done.

Times are uncertain here, and I, as a primarily stay-at-home parent, am feeling it. I haven't felt this unsure of the future and what it might bring since graduating college. I'm all too reliant on my spouse as breadwinner, quite worried about my son's attitudes towards his schoolwork, and generally feeling powerless in my current part-time job. Making new friends here has been hard; meeting with older ones still in the area has proven to be just as hard due to the crushing realities of incompatible work schedules and long travel distances.

What is certain in the face of all of this is that grass grows. And mowers cut.

When my spouse has his frustrations at work, I can see the results of raking up the pinecones far more than I can parse with him what exactly the problems are and how to solve them. I can't accompany him to work and try to do what he does, but I can bag pine needles and take the bags to the curb for pickup.

When my son decides organizing and following directions is not as interesting as reading the fifth Harry Potter book in the series, I can nag and nag at him to get the work he ignores done, help him organize as much as I can, then take some of my frustrations out on the growing grass.

When I am filled with these recent insanities and far, far more, I can kick back with some wine in the couch swing I just got and enjoy the only thing I can really count on right now…

…Grass grows. Mowers cut.

One more thing I can count on? Change is the only constant.

And I hope things change for the better soon.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

My 1835

Although Houston itself has quite the deserved reputation of obliterating its historical spots in the name of progress, expansion, and strip malls (it gets exploited for a bit of satire on occasion), Texas does adore its history, especially when it has to do with its ten years of independent living as a republic. The Come And Take It Festival in Gonzales, Texas at the end of this month wouldn't exist without one man's stalling for time by drawing a proverbial line in the sand and kicking off the Texas Revolution as a result. It's an event celebrated by many who love the right to bear arms to utter distraction and commemorated by flags that bear the image of a certain contested cannon and those four fateful words.

My personal favorite take on the flag bears the image of the Astrodome instead of the cannon on it; it currently sits alongside the behemoth that is NPG (formerly Reliant) Stadium, stripped of its seats and serving as glorified storage. It was Judge Roy Hofheinz's vision of the future, and if this town plays its cards right, another judge could help deliver a different vision that keeps the Dome standing. Until then, the place my granddaddy helped develop and manufacture plexiglass roof panels for will sit and wait in its asphalt sea of parking for news of its ultimate fate.

Though both flags are pretty interesting ones to consider flying in Swanky Haciendaland, which does adore and approve of patriotic displays as long as they're only a certain height above the ground, I have checked the subdivision's by-laws and my neighbors' yards and found that, though U.S. and Texas flags abound, there are other types of flags here. One fella's got three flying from tree trunks in his yard: a stars and stripes, a USMC flag, and a POW-MIA flag. So…

When I thought the 'hood restrictions only allowed either the U.S. or Texas flags on the lawns, I recalled a New Orleans version of the stars and stripes and ordered a couple - one for football season, one for Carnival time.

Though we have a handyman who's mostly AWOL and our internet seems to be MIA, I grit my teeth and revel in the little things to keep from going completely berserk. My small triumph of the day is getting this baby up before the regular NFL season begins. Long may it wave.

Come and take it, HOA.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


I had been reduced to this:

Sobbing at my kitchen table.

"I don't think I can make it through another week of this," I wailed to Dan, all the unsolved problems of our move looming like an insurmountable obstacle on my brain. Compared to what many people I know have gone through, my troubles are trivial, but they sit heavily on me, compounded by my having to go at them alone for the most part while my husband and son are at work and at school, respectively. So I must struggle away with problems like…

applying to be a Texan.

It sounds cute. It isn't.

My car gets the privilege of becoming legal in this state before I do, where I must take it to an inspection station, then to a local tax assessor's office, and then I can get the okay from the state DMV for my Toyota to become a Registered Texan. I learned all of this when I tried and failed to get a Texas driver's license at the state Department of Public Safety, where I was turned away once for mistakenly bringing in a coffee ("No food or drink in the building. Please exit immediately." I'd've had a better reception if I'd brought uranium in) before being turned away for owning a Registered Louisianian car. Don't ask me why the state DMV doesn't handle the driver's licenses; I'm still trying to figure that one out. The only giggle I got out of the experience was seeing that a trampoline park is opening soon next door to the local DPS offices. I silently wished for many DPS employees to sustain some serious bounce-related injuries at a future trampoline shindig after the gatekeeper lady turned me away from the offices with a "good luck."

Years ago, Texas floated the idea of putting its official motto, "The Friendship State," on its license plates. The notion was roundly booed by native Texans, who derided it as being too wimpy for a state where even the garbage pickup campaign was badass. I'm inclined to think the new motto ought to be "You Should Have Been Born Here," or, after my experience of finally gaining membership in the Swanky Haciendaland community center, "The Nanny State."

Since we are lowly renters in this upscale burg, we needed signed, notarized permission from our landlady, a copy of our lease, and a form of ID with our current address on it to become members for a year, and then things got high tech. My fingerprint had to be scanned, then tested at the front door and the door of the health club to see if I could gain access. I was informed once my finger clicked open the front door that three cameras were mounted at the door, the footage was regularly checked, and if I was seen to let an unauthorized person(s) in, my scan would not allow me to gain access until I came in during office hours for a re-scan and, presumably, a reading of a deed-restricted Riot Act of sorts. It's looking like holding the little guy's bar mitzvah party at the place in nearly two years is a non-option.

I told Dan and our pal Justin about the process and got both barrels of kvetching about 21st century police states in the Information Age. Dan vowed he'd never set foot in the place to get his fingerprint scanned. I started thinking about the role IBM played in the Shoah, dismissed that worst-case scenario, and figured the best the community center could do was teach Augusta National and some old-line New Orleans Carnival krewes a thing or two about exclusivity in these modern times. First they will come for the lowly renters with scruffy yards living right at the bumps in the otherwise smooth subdivision lanes. You heard it here.

Talking about those two things is exhausting enough. I haven't even gotten to the fiasco thus far that is our attempts to get ComCast to supply us with WiFi. Nor have I kvetched sufficiently about our hard-to-get-in-the-house handyman Jesus…I can say if he were the one back in the beginning relied upon for any sort of first or second coming, Christianity would never have gotten off the ground.

All I can do today is wait. Wait for people to arrive within scheduled three-to-five-hour appointment windows to take one look at our house/our yard/our cable-internet lines and tell us why we cannot enjoy the services said people are supposed to provide. Wait for return phone calls. Wait for the second coming of Jesus the handyman. Hell, if someone would pay me to wait, it might be easier, but only a little.

It'd all still be kicking my sick and tired ass.

Gonna go back to the kitchen and cry some more. At least we have a new, working fridge, and a roof over our heads, and our health. Pass me the Kleenex to dry my eyes.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Home Sweet Home Challenge

Thought I am not there physically - and I was not there nine years ago, either - this is the ninth anniversary of the levee breaches in New Orleans and the start of a hard Gulf Coast area recovery that for too many continues to this very day.

I read Bill Loehfelm's post today, however, and was reminded that, this many years on, our greatest impulse in the face of such tragedy must still be to live…

I bet most of you, if not all of you, have something you want to do that you’ve been putting off - until you get the time, until you get the money, you know the drill. Not something big, not the trip to Mexico or Paris, but something small around where you live that caught your interest and your imagination: a matinee on a weekday, a new restaurant or an old favorite you’ve neglected, an exhibition at a gallery downtown, a hike in the state park, a concert at a club that maybe means staying out a bit too late. That thing that makes you say, Man, I’d really like to…Man, I wish I could…

My challenge to you? Let the good times roll.

Do it. Do it today. Do it this weekend. Do it with someone you love. Call out sick. Spend the money. Because next week, next month, tomorrow - they usually come, they probably will, but sometimes they don’t and you’re left with the saddest words: “If only … “

Whatever it is, do it. As soon as you can. One never knows what will happen.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Betrayal, Grudge, Envy, Gossip, Lies…Silence

Because I am an incurable Twitter addict, I have been getting eyefuls of Ferguson, Missouri coverage and reactions in my timeline and have been repeatedly shaking my head over mistake after sick, violent mistake that keeps getting made by authorities in the wake of yet another senseless death of a black teenager.

Because I am an addict of the printed word, I am getting around to reading some of my books whose spines I haven't yet cracked (incidentally, one absolute beauty of Nick Hornby's Believer magazine book columns is in the lists he maintains of books purchased and books read; all avid readers will nod at the very existence of both lists) and have picked up a few novels by Dara Horn, one of which contains the following passage on the "science" of some of the baser human actions, explored by a soon-to-be human in the time before birth:
One time, they had to plant microscopic cells of betrayal in petri dishes, inspecting their growth over the course of the class. Daniel stared at the dish and was astonished at how quickly the cells multiplied, by how a surface that was pristine moments before metamorphosed within minutes into a gangrenous plate of rot. A similar experiment was done involving a grudge, with identical results. Envy, on the other hand, proved itself not to be contagious at all; instead, it ate its carrier alive. Another lab result that intrigued Daniel was when the class measured the speed of gossip as it traveled through various media, determining how its speed was affected by whether it was transmitted through speech, writing, broadcast, or silence. To his surprise, the fastest means of travel was silence, which allowed the gossip to move faster simply by refusing to stop it, facilitated through listeners who should have created some kind of friction to slow it down but instead failed to rise to the subject's defense. Daniel was slightly repulsed by the lab involving the dissection of lies, a gory procedure in which he and a partner had to slice through layers of smooth skinlike surfaces and pin them back to reveal the innards, which mostly consisted of disgusting rotting guts of self-loathing and fear. (Some not-yets had asked for permission to sit out the dissections, claiming that it was against their religious beliefs. Permission was never granted.)
It heartens me that Twitter is not silent about Ferguson, because that is the last thing that is needed right now, but Twitter is, ultimately, a human engine, displaying just as many fears and instances of loathing as it does hopes and truths. Get past the shiny surfaces of bright lies and one thing does remain: we treat those who look different as lesser beings. Long after the civil rights movement and Great Society legislation supposedly made that wrong, it still happens with insidious regularity.

I'm tired of turning on the news and seeing a story of some unarmed black person gunned down or otherwise killed, and being horrified, but even more horrifically, not all that surprised.  I have never faced that sort of violent hostility in my life, and I would never intend to imply that anything I've ever experienced even comes close.  But I've faced enough ... racial skepticism, I guess you could call it, so that these stories sadly never surprise me. 
I'm tired of people telling me that "Karen, you just see these things because you live in the South.  It's not like that anywhere else."  I'm here to tell you, Ferguson isn't the south.  Nor is Dayton, Ohio.  Nor is Dearborn, Michigan.  Nor, nor, nor. 
I'm tired of worrying about my daughter and other black children of friends of mine, afraid that the world might be no different when they go out into it as teenagers and young adults -- because their teenage- and young-adult-years aren't that far away anymore.  I'm tired of worrying that America might view our children as expendable. 
I'm tired of every time my little girl doesn't try her best at school, my yelling at her invariably includes a lecture that people are looking for her to fail because she's black and she's a girl, and she's way too effing brilliant of a kid to let people write her off due to her blackness and her girlness.  That she needs to make them work really, really hard before they write her off in any way.  I'm just tired of the work-twice-as-hard-to-be-considered-half-as-good conversation that I believe is still a necessary concept for her to understand. 
I'm tired of walking through the world constantly aware of how my blackness is being perceived, how my interracial marriage is being perceived.  The fact is, whether it is being perceived positively or negatively, if I'm in the United States, I am always aware of it, and I'm tired.
"It's not like that anywhere else"? Yes, the South has had its Jenas, its Danziger Bridges, but New York City has had Amadou Diallo, Crown Heights, racial profiling out the wazoo. This is happening all over this country, exacerbated by the Section 1033 post-September 11 arsenals local police departments have been amassing.

We could indeed use far more scientific dissection of these matters and less pompously righteous religiosity.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Texas: Remembered and Seen

My parents and I used to do the drive I took to my new home in reverse, going from southwest Houston to my grandparents' in Knoxville with the windows down, the Beach Boys, John Denver, or Fleetwood Mac blasting on the tape deck, and my dad venturing to chat with truckers on the CB radio late at night to keep him driving. New Orleans would be bypassed entirely for speed reasons and because Dad didn't like the city, anyway, having only seen Bourbon Street at night between seminars in the daytime at one long-ago convention he attended. It's only taken me 25 years - and another six hours of driving atop that - for me to end up a half-hour away from where I grew up.

I'm in a neighborhood with very little street lighting, nearly no sidewalks, and mostly strip malls within walking distance. We are so starved for a good bar in the 'hood, we are grasping at anything; a place only a month old that calls itself a "drinkery" and sports a snarky billboard on its sidewalk that wouldn't be out of place in front of Henry's or the Prytania Bar looks promising to Dan, but I'm skeptical.

Get in the car and worlds open, something that hasn't changed in a quarter century of being away from this city. A Twitter personage joked we were in an area with two Wal-Marts within a mile, which is not quite true. As we are at the edge of Swanky Haciendaland, it's more like three Starbucks within that mile. An Alamo Drafthouse is in the area, which has lifted my spirits considerably. I am pulled back to reality, however, by an old family restaurant reminiscent of Golden Corrals & Bob Evans' situated next door to the Critter Fixer Animal Hospital. If the critters aren't fixed, where do they end up?

As a kid, local TV ads constantly shilled for businesses on the Eastex Freeway, the Katy Freeway, or FM 1960, which seemed like faraway places to me, as did a Girl Scout camp I attended in New Caney a few times. Now we live near those areas, and they are hopping. Local ads now feature…Lyle Lovett. Shilling for KHOU-TV. It just makes me miss Marvin Zindler.

I know Nolan Ryan has always been an Alvin country boy at heart and in fact, but I balk at eating burgers made from "Nolan Ryan's all-natural beef." I'd tempt a giant armadillo with a trunk full of Lone Star beer first. Incidentally, there are craft breweries and brewpubs opening up in the greater Houston area every week, it seems. It makes Lone Star look like Natty Light at this point.

Dan is annoyed that Texans don't pronounce it "ya-SEEN-toh" in these parts, which brings out a touch of the dormant chauvinistic Texan in me.

*sigh* "It's just 'San Jacinto' here, honey, pronounced like it's spelled."

"This city is so cosmopolitan, it's devoid of any identity. Plunk a Houstonian anywhere else in the country and you cannot tell they're from Houston."

I point to myself. "Case in point?"



Robin Williams' passing has brought many concerns about depression and how society treats its depressed members to the forefront for a New York minute. It makes it worth posting this C-SPAN panel on depression issues that features Mike Wallace, Kay Redfield Jamison, Alma Powell, William Styron, and others. I saw it not long after I began taking SSRIs for my own depression. If more people understood that depression can be lifelong, and if it were treated like any other chronic physiological condition, we'd all be better off. Perhaps our best, brightest, and funniest might be able to stick around for far longer, too.

Friday, July 25, 2014

(Re)Move My Head

This is how my brain works:

I reserved a few CDs from the ones I've had to pack recently to play in the wheeled stereo system that is my car (and the boom box in my kitchen), among them the Old 97s' The Grand Theater Vol. 2, which I hadn't listened to in over a year. I threw on the album in the car and itched to listen to the song that first introduced me to the band, the legendary-in-the-now, "Mannish Boy" on alt-country-tinged "Won't Be Home" that was on heavy rotation on WFUV in New York City when I lived in Queens. It wasn't enough to hear it on the internet, because I haven't found a way to hook up my smartphone to my car stereo (it's an iPhone-biased system, it seems, and I have a Droid). I headed to a local shop to see if I could find Drag It Up, struck out, then came across an album while browsing that rang a bell visually for me…

Our recent travels up through the Midwest to Iowa for Dan's band performance had us stopping in Chicago for a few days and nights to visit with Dan's old college buddies and their families while taking in a bit of the town. An underground walk through the inner city's downtown had us cropping up near the Chicago River Museum and glimpsing the base of some unusual-looking towers by the water, cars poking out from the kernels of what Dan quickly yet reverently referred to as the "corncob towers" before steering us to the museum. Those same towers poked out of the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album of which the only thing I knew about up to last week was what Greg Kot wrote about it in Ripped, his book about how the digital revolution and the internets were changing the music industry: the account of how Wilco bought its masters of the album from Reprise Records after the company refused to release it as it was and streamed the album away for free via the band's website kicks off his book (understandable since Kot had written a biography of Wilco before Ripped, but Kot's takes on Napster, Radiohead's approach to their music distribution, and Prince leaving Warner Records are interesting and informative). I grabbed YHT and made for the register. I just removed the CD from my car's player, it having been in there all this week.

It only took me twelve-plus years to finally listen to it, but it's a powerful piece of work, even if a listener doesn't know a damned thing about Wilco. The timing of its release to the public - digitally, then by more traditional means when the band worked out a deal with Nonesuch Records - probably associates it in more knowledgeable people's minds with the political atmosphere in this country just after 9/11, but it's about far more than that, and I got caught up in it to the point where someone took a good, hard look at me this past Thursday and told me what, deep down, I already knew: I was in mourning. YHT taps into my current uncertainties, my fumbling for what in the hell I'm going to do when I fully join my husband in suburbia after all this moving prep, how I'll be able to negotiate in person the culture shock he's currently suffering that certainly lies in wait for me, the realities of a life we both grew up in and pretty successfully evaded up 'til now. This move, more than any other I've been through to date, is scaring me, and I stumbled upon the soundtrack.

This is not to say that we're not a resilient bunch. We will find some way through this, like we always have. I think I now have some inkling, however, of how tied to one place a person can get and of how such bonds bring a body to the edge of where an uprooting could easily lead to heartbreak. I'm not sure, personally, how much more of this I can take, but it is quite likely that this is what it is to live in the world at this time and I'll just have to get used to it, suck it up and carry on, with my sole anchors being those of love and compassion. That is what I responded to in Wilco's music.

I got some Old 97s albums yesterday, not the ones I wanted, but they'll tide me over for a while. Most Messed Up is currently the one blasting on my car stereo. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot makes two albums I've got to put away for at least a few weeks (here's the first one if you missed it). Just can't afford to wallow too much when my life is either being donated, tossed out, or boxed up.

Such is the nature of any move.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When It Hit…

I was determined. Dan was going to drive into Houston the next day, I'd slept all morning, successfully snoozing away the remains of a headache that had begun the night before, and I was primed to take the wheel and drive us from West Plains, Missouri, all the way back home if I had to be pried out of the car at the end of the trip…which I did, with the help of many music CDs I whipped in and out of my car's player while navigating highway 63's hairpin curves through the Ozarks and cruising down I-55's mostly newly paved lanes.

We've road tripped a lot, Dan and I, and I tend to treat the car as though it's a stereo on wheels. Occasionally, Dan will ask me about a particular band or musician whose album I play, and when he does, it's usually followed by a brief criticism. On this trip to and from his band concert in Iowa, The White Stripes' Icky Thump was "pretentious," we both recoiled at the dull lifelessness of Lucinda Williams' West, and Ray LaMontagne's Supernova got some queries about what exactly the man was singing. "Now he sounds like he's singing 'drive-in movies.'"

"That's exactly what he's singing."

"Oh, well then."

As I drove over the Mississippi border into Louisiana, I fumbled with the CD carrier in the dark, placing the Daptone Gold album back in and pulling out what I thought was Liz Phair. Instead of "Chopsticks" on Whip-Smart, however, I got "Door-Poppin'," the first song off John Boutté's Good Neighbor.

Hey, it's Louisiana already, what the hell, I thought, settling in with songs I realized I hadn't listened to in possibly a year or two. At one time, Good Neighbor had been a constant listen for me, but it sat in the carrier for quite a while before unfolding for me on the road over Manchac Pass.

I took in song after song, the ones made famous by HBO's Treme, the plaintive strength of Boutté's take on "Southern Man," the heartbreak of "Showing Up For The Party" that makes "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" sound cheery in comparison, Boutté singing about his sisters, his experiences as a barber and a soldier…but we were over the Bonnet Carré Spillway when these particular lyrics from his sweet, soulful version of Iris DeMent's "My Life" hit me:

But I gave joy to my mother.
And I made my lover smile.
And I can give comfort to my friends when they're hurting.
And I can make it seem better for a while.

We're moving away once we get back to New Orleans. It's really happening.

The thought nearly floored me.

Eight years on this go-round in a place I loved and how had I spent my time? Did I do all I could do, all I wanted to do, all that I should have done? Would we ever return for more than occasional visits? The strains of Boutté's duet with Paul Sanchez answered back, a laid-back, swinging "Accentuate The Positive" that closed out the album and what had become an emotional experience for me. Never had passing through Metairie made me so farklempt. There was no more music that could be played after that.

The homestretch of packing begins tomorrow. My final drive out of New Orleans is in two weeks. I'm thinking of going to take in John Boutté at d.b.a. on his regular night if he's there…

…but I'll give Good Neighbor a rest. Save it for a time when I'm not driving.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hello, Houston: A Hate-Love Story

Allow me to re-introduce myself. I've been running for a long while, much of it in place, but fate has conspired to drag me back in close proximity to one of the greater sources of anxiety I've ever known.

All this time, I've treated Houston, where I lived for twelve years, as a slice of autobiography, a sliver of the past best left in the past. Which isn't to say it was all bad; in fact, the final two years of my time in the city were great, for the most part. Fact is, I was a child, under my parents' care, and they made the big decisions at the time. The one that had the biggest effect on me was where to send me to school. I understand now they were stuck between a rock and a hard place: Houston public schools weren't the greatest, and my family wanted me to get a Jewish education, so I was sent to fertile ground for some of the nastiest grade school cliques and bullies I've ever known.

I met with a friend of mine recently, one of the few friends I had from those days, and she asked me who I thought was the worst. "Boys or girls?" I asked. It didn't matter who. Whether they were guys or gals, they were both pretty damned bad.

It didn't help that I was a sensitive kid who got upset with the slightest teasing, then lashed out in anger at whomever was doing the insulting. Most of the time, the punishments came down on me. Honor roll was based on behavior, not grades, so in seven years at this school, I only made it twice.

In fifth grade, I walked out of school intending to run away and never come back to the hell I was living. I got as far as the railroad tracks a block or two down the main road. I then turned around and went back to school, walked into the offices, and complained that I was being abused by nearly everyone. I was sent to a psychologist. The other kids found out and made fun of me for it. I went to an appointment with the psychologist after a particularly bad day of being teased and bullied about it and said some things that ensured I never went back to the psych again, ensuring that I have a conflicted relationship with therapy to this day.

So, Houston was hellish that way.

I found an escape route, though, an unexpected one. And I'm looking forward to indulging it again once we move, actually.

A neighbor girl lived on her ten-speed bicycle and encouraged me to ditch the training wheels on the Schwinn I was on (peer pressure, terrible in some ways, can be beneficial in other ways). Once I was on a ten-speed of my own, I flew. I biked all over. Mom thought I was six years too late in learning (she taught herself how to do it at five), but she and Dad let me go wherever I liked. I fished out enough spare change from the powdered chocolate tin on the kitchen counter, biked to a stereo shop a ways down one of the main roads, and fished through their bargain tape bins for albums. I biked to libraries and bookstores and movie theaters. I biked through my middle school years, pretty much.

The neighbor girl and I once biked to downtown Houston and back on the bayou trails, a round trip distance of at least twenty-plus miles. We thought our parents would freak out when we got home, because we were racing against the setting sun and losing, but I arrived home, in the dark, to my mother's great news that I got into the arts high school I really wanted to attend. It kicked off my deep love for the visual arts that lingers to this day. My dad still thinks I went into glassworking in part because of the times he and my mom would take me to the Houston Festival, but I always loved visiting the art museums, especially the Menil Collection, the Rothko Chapel, and the Contemporary Arts Museum. One of my favorite art tales concerns a Mel Chin sculpture that was in front of the CAM. My high school years proved that things could get better if one kept going through hell.

And then we moved. To small-town central Pennsylvania, my first instance of culture shock, and the first inkling that not all moves are good moves.

Jury's out on whether this move to just outside northwest Houston will be a good one or not. But we've got a house out there now and we're coming. Physical and mental baggage and all.

P.S.: No, my son will NOT be going to the same school I went to, but I will be worrying for him just the same. I'm a mom. It's in my job description.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014


We'd sing the rhyme, among many others, when we were being bused to and from day camp, all of us settled into our seats (some of us in the best ones at the back, anticipating the bumps in the road that could send them towards the bus roof at just the right moment) and watching the suburbs become the country in the morning, only to view the reverse in the afternoons. It was probably one of the top five bus songs, along with "99 Bottles Of Beer" and "Cheers To The Bus Driver," and it could occupy us for a while if we sang every verse…

Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peeeeanut just now, I just now found a peanut, found a peanut juuuust now.

I find this song is going through my head a lot right now partly because it's summertime, but also because we're going to do something big and, for me personally, kind of scary. I didn't like where I grew up very much. I didn't like the grade school and middle school I attended. Camp was a source of many of my happiest memories, but the summers were brief and I eventually outgrew camp.

It was rotten, it was rotten, it was roooootten just now, it just now was rotten, it was rotten juuuuust now. Ate it anyway, ate it anyway, ate it aaaaanyway just now, I just now ate it anyway, ate it anyway juuuuust now. Got sick, got sick, gooot siiiick juuuust now, I just now gooot siiiick, goooot siiiick juuuust now.

Dan's job hasn't been treating him well for a while now. It hurt my heart to see him frustrated with being overworked & denied chances for advancement, so I let him know if he wanted to look at opportunities that would take us away from New Orleans, he could do that. We can still rent out our house here, like we did when we were in Queens for four years. I don't have an occupation comparable to Dan's income-wise that could keep us here. It made sense for him to look elsewhere. I didn't think the search would lead back to my childhood home, though.

Just died, just died, juuuust diiied juuust now, I just now just died, just died, juuuust now. Went to heaven, went to heaven, went to heaaaven juuust now, I just now went to heaven, went to heaven juuust now. Kicked out, kicked out, kicked oooout just now, I was just now kicked out, kicked ooooout juuust now.

Dan signed the written offer, which is far better than what he was getting here. He gave his boss notice today. He starts the new job in mid-July. We're looking for homes in an area with better public schools so that we don't have to pay out the nose for them. I worry some about how the little guy will handle the actual move, though he seems just fine with it right now. I worry a little bit more about my reactions to it. For 25 years, I left it behind and was pretty happy to do so. Come mid-July, it comes roaring back.

Back to Houston, back to Houston, back to Hoooouston juuust now, I just now went back to Houston, back to Houston juuuust now.

"You shoulda stayed in New York, kiddo," my grandma said half-jokingly when she heard the news. "Full circle, huh?"

My mom says to treat it like another great adventure. Which it will be, I'm sure, once I calm down some.

My dad's happy because he can check out Spec's when he comes to visit his grandson, and possibly head down to Galveston in the summers like we did when I was a kid.

I won't be completely alone. One of the few good friends I actually made in grade school, and reconnected with via Facebook, is still there. Maitri is making room in the New Orleans expats for me, she says. Probably the best part is that we won't be moving into my old neighborhood. That would be too, too much.

I think back on it now, though, and some good things come to mind. I learned to ride a bike there and biked everywhere once I got the chance. I attended summer musical theater programs, volleyball camps, the rodeo each year, Astros and Oilers games (something in me can't believe a stadium now exists that dwarfs the Astrodome)…and then I hit my first two years of an arts high school I got into, a school I loved…'til my parents had to move us all up to a teensy central Pennsylvania town. So there are some positive things to build on. Yeah.

I am going to miss New Orleans.

Big time

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rest in peace, Morwen

It seems I only fire up the ol' blog these days when the news isn't so great. Perhaps when things get better…and my Twitter addiction lessens…

'Til then, I go back to the days when I first discovered I wasn't the only one in New Orleans doing this blogging thing. It was early 2007 and New Orleanians were marching on City Hall to demand that, after the murders of Hot 8 Brass Band snare drummer Dinerral Shavers and filmmaker Helen Hill, all of law enforcement put greater efforts into fighting the violent crime that had once again settled on this city like a waking nightmare. I couldn't attend the march, but I could experience it through the posts and pictures of the many people blogging about it. It wasn't until a few months later that I got to meet some of those same people through a Geek Dinner event, among them a certain Gentilly resident (and her significant other Betts) who had been through a lot and who had passionately blogged about it.

Morwen at Rising Tide II, photo by Maitri
Morwen Madrigal - a bright lady who was inspired to take part of the fictional Anna Madrigal's name as her own when she became, on the outside, the woman she felt she'd always been inside - was interested in the health, happiness, and prosperity of all of New Orleans, which was what led her to become an early organizer of Rising Tide. She didn't want what had happened to her home (and what she was going through to recover from it) to happen to anyone else, and she threw in much of her lot with a fairly motley crew of us blogging folk to raise awareness of these things and put the social in social media in the process.

Morwen didn't come to many Rising Tide events after the 2007 conference, though I would still see her on occasion. She and Betts were busy getting their home and their lives together. It was looking like one of the better recovery stories in a place that needed them badly, until Betts took ill and passed away in late December 2010. A group of us went to the house to help Morwen out after Betts' death and saw how much Betts' passing had thrown Morwen for a loop. Doing basic things like cleaning up after her many cats seemed beyond her at the time. A kindly neighbor and NOLA Slate took over looking in on Morwen and alerting the family she had left to her condition. The last time I myself saw her was in early 2011, when I dropped her off at the VA hospital for an appointment. Her final blog post, though it doesn't seem to be appearing now, was in December 2012, expressing her wish that the house she and Betts once shared become a trans compound.

Today, Adrastos at First Draft posted on Twitter the news that Morwen is gone. There are no further details yet. Zichron l'vrachah, they say in Judaism when someone has died. May her memory be for a blessing.

Her memory is a blessing. But dammit, I wish she were still here.