Thursday, January 26, 2012

DANCE, PUPPETS! DANCE FOR ME! Do any of you all have recommendations for books on choreography? I have several starting points but would be interested in comments; I'm especially looking for analysis of specific shows and choreographic choices, rather than more basic how-to stuff. Thanks!
The online producers at CBS posted a photo slideshow the other day that appeared under the following rather literal headline:

Activists Hold Annual March For Life On Roe v. Wade Anniversary

So, just thinking out loud, what percentage of the pictures in this gallery would you expect to be of, well, the thousands and thousands of activists who traveled to Washington, D.C., in order to take part in the annual March For Life on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade?

If you guessed anything other than zero, you would be wrong.

There are literally no pictures of any pro-lifers in this feature.

more--in the comments you can read that the slideshow was changed to be 50/50 marchers/protesters sometime today. This (Mollie's comment at 7.47 pm) is also worth noting.
"GRITTY PHOTOGRAPHS OF '80S NEW YORK." #6 is actually lovely.
"FRANCE PLANS 'NAPOLEONLAND.'" Continuing a theme from the previous link.
“Napoleonland”, the brainchild of former French minister and history buff Yves Jégo, is being touted as a rival to Disneyland – assuming, that is, it can gather the £180 million needed to leave the drawing board. ...

Other curious potential attractions include a ski run through a battlefield "surrounded by the frozen bodies of soldiers and horses" and a recreation of Louis XVI being guillotined during the revolution – the precursor to Napoleon’s rise to power.

"It's going to be fun for the family,” he Mr Jégo told the Times.

Service to the neighbor may also take on a shape very hard to fit into the limits and constraints of society--a love akin to what Daniel Day Williams has called Franciscan love or what Gene Outka has described in discussing love as self-sacrifice. Such a love, because it seeks its own no more than Christ did, breaks through all the normal forms of life in society. Free of all claims to power, privilege, and possession--free even of all desires except the one overmastering desire to follow Christ--this type of Christian lover goes out in search of his neighbor.
--Gilbert Meilaender, Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"TO THE MOTHER WITH ONLY ONE CHILD." Beautiful, and fairly raw:
Dear Mother of Only One Child,

Don’t say it. Before the words can even pass your lips, let me beg you: don’t say, “Wow, you have nine kids? I thought it was hard with just my one!”

My dear, it is hard. You’re not being a wuss or a whiner when you feel like your life is hard. I know, because I remember having “only one child.” You may not even believe how many times I stop and reflect on how much easier my life is, now that I have nine children.

All right, so there is a lot more laundry. Keeping up with each child’s needs, and making sure they all get enough attention, is a constant worry. And a stomach bug is pretty much the end of the world, when nine digestive tracts are afflicted.

But I remember having only one child, and it was hard—so very hard. Some of the difficulties were just practical: I didn’t know what I was doing, had to learn everything. People pushed me around because I was young and inexperienced. But even worse were the emotional struggles of learning to be a mother.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

DEVELOPING CONFLICTS: Some quick thoughts about Time Stands Still, at the Studio Theater through 2/12.

The play is about a war photographer and her reporter boyfriend; when she's almost killed on the job, they retreat to their Brooklyn apartment and try to figure out how to move forward with their lives. There are only two supporting characters, Richard the somewhat plastic editor and his new fiancee Mandy the cliched, saccharine Americaness. (After one scene with Mandy I found myself thinking, "Wait, but I thought this play was written by a woman?" It wasn't.)

There are a lot of problems with this play. It can be cheap and predictable (of course the photographer's much-divorced, horrible father is a conservative Christian! of course Mandy is much younger than Richard!) and the big-idea lines are often pat. The shifts in audience identification are what you might expect: Mandy gets her moments, etc. The actual war-zone descriptions are a bit tinny--I wasn't super surprised to find out after the show, from the playwright bio in the program, that David Margulies wrote it because he was troubled by his life in Connecticut rather than because he was troubled by his many trips to Iraq, you know?

That said, the play's heart is clearly in its portrayal of "emerging adulthood," anchorless people who are no longer as young as they act, people to whom life is starting to catch up.

I think one contrast between Sarah the photographer and Jamie the reporter/boyfriend is that he's trying to be a man, and she's trying to be an adult. Her task is more straightforward, and she's a more straightforward character in general. The way longing for connection and stability shapes a man is portrayed very keenly and subtly here. (I initially thought that Sarah had been captured, and that the suppressed aggression in Jamie's haunted eyes would come forward more directly. That didn't happen, and I think the play is better for it. Holly Twyford is pretty terrific as Sarah, but on the basis of those sunken eyes I'm giving the award here to Greg McFadden as Jamie.)

There are also some hints about the ways in which disaster-journalism requires the complicity of the suffering locals; the ethical dilemmas inherent in the practice are sharpened when the locals don't hand themselves over to the camera.

I'm glad I saw this and I'd generally recommend it, despite its flaws.
ABSINTHE MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER: The second video here is very, very fun. For TKB on the slight chance she hasn't seen it already.
THE BEST FAKE FOREIGN-POLICY TWITTER FEEDS. Via DrunkenPredator, who gets a spot on the list!
MOVIES FROM AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE. Some of these are very fun. Via Flavorwire.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

JUST A BEACH AND A PRETTY GIRL: Photos of NYC teen life in the late '70s and '80s.
SOME SMALL THOUGHTS ON REPETITIVE PRAYER: I know it's easy to criticize repeated prayers because they can seem rote, dissolving into jabberwocky. But having just finished a prayer in which I really did forget my place and get kind of mixed up, I was struck by how apt that experience is--how well it fits our experience of long-term spiritual life and struggle.

I mean, we forget parts of our pain, too, or get mixed up about which parts go where. They sometimes become rote parts of our lives, acknowledged but barely recognized. And then we're suddenly startled by some fragment of self-knowledge and it glints like broken glass. This happens with repeated prayers as well. Some previously-overlooked phrase will suddenly envelop me like wings, or hit hard on a bruise. Repetition is a way of allowing ourselves to be surprised by what arises in the course of what might seem like an ordinary night's prayer.

It also keeps us from thinking that spiritual problems get "solved," finished. The struggle may feel rote one day, mumbled through quickly and gotten over with, but it in fact does have to be repeated in all its manifold forms, this day and the next and the next.

(Somewhat more coherent thoughts from me on repetitive prayer here.)
"BONDS OF AFFECTION": I review Ethan J. Leib's Friend v. Friend: The Transformation of Friendship--And What the Law Has to Do With It, in the current issue of Commonweal. Link is subscribers-only, at least for now.
...This attitude is fairly common among African-Americans addicts in poor neighborhoods in most large US cities; ironically, while the biggest complaint about AA and NA among skeptical middle-class white addicts is the dependence on a Higher Power, in urban black communities 12-step recovery groups are marginalized because they aren't explicitly allied with any church. In addition, the confessional mode of "sharing" that defines the AA fellowship is alien to the ethic of African- neighborhoods, where airing your dirty laundry in public is disappoved of rather than viewed as a method of establishing trust and fellowship. For the same reason, professional psychotherapy is frequently dismissed as a "white" treatment; given the church's influence, mental health issues are widely viewed as caused by a lack of faith remedied by more regular attendance at Bible study.

When I was new to doing social work in the black community, this widespread attitude confused me and frustrated my efforts to help my black clients. An an ex-junkie, I could vow for the benefits to be gained from both recovery groups and therapy. A North Philly church lady coworker set me straight. “A lot of black don't feel that AA and therapy are alien to everything they know," she told me. "If you got problems you just go to church on Sunday and scream your head off and then everything’s fine."

But for Susan, it turned out, everything wasn’t fine. While Jesus and the church were pulling her in one direction, the judicial system had made an unwelcome appearance and was pulling her in another. The entire time Susan was in prison, the state of Pennsylvania was running a tab on all the welfare dollars her mother received in her children’s names. Consequently, per state law, Susan was held responsible for the total amount upon her release, and soon the welfare department came calling to get its money back.

In our sessions, Susan showed me a raft of increasingly threatening official letters with eye-popping dollar figures that had her practically hyperventilating. The state wanted in excess of $25,000, and wanted it now.

A hearing was scheduled at the Bucks County Courthouse, where Susan was asked to provide documents proving that she had a job and could start paying her child support debt or face returning to jail in contempt of a court order. Obviously, on her janitor’s survival wages Susan had absolutely no capacity to both pay the state and keep a roof over her head. This Sophie's choice is a common dilemma for tens of thousands of single mothers returning to the community from prison who owe the state for the dollars their children depended on in their mother’s absence.

Many states require the moms behind bars to assume the burden of child support if they wish to keep their children from being lost in the foster care system. Yet the vast majority are like Susan, devoid of resources except the pennies she might ear from her prison job—and what loving mother (it need hardly be noted the crack addicts and prostitutes do not negate materal love) would even think twice about "defrauding" the system to provide her children with at least minimal security?

This cruel no-win predicament drove Susan to desperation. “Do they know how hard it's going to be to hold down a job if I wind up in a homeless shelter?” she asked me. “Don’t they understand that I’m walking with the Lord and trying to get my life together?”

I accompanied her to the courthouse intending to speak with the judge and explain Susan’s special circumstances. I hoped that the court would grant leniency and allow me to continue working with Susan; she was off the streets, off drugs, back in housing, back to work. She was a success of the system. How could Bucks County not do the right thing and hold off on onerous monthly support payments until she was a little more stable?

But the judge, a middle aged, white Republican appointee in a county notorious for its GOP family court judges with a special beef againstblack women from Philadelphia running up welfare bills on their county’s tab while sitting in jail, refused even to give us a word at the bar of the court. He asked Susan for documentation proving her employment status and when she told him her job at the church was paid under the table, he snarled derisively, “Isn’t that the American way?” clearly insinuating that Susan was not only a common criminal, but a tax-dodging welfare mother, too.

Susan protested the high amount of the monthly support payment, explaining that if she paid the debt she couldn’t afford a place to live. I will never forget how painful it was, watching this woman, who had never in her life caught a single break, have to stand before the American justice system and nearly beg for mercy. But for this black woman in this white judge's courtroom there was no mercy to be had. Her criminal record of violent crime, her drug addiction, her prostitution—all of her vices outweighed the spiritual transformation and personal rehabilitation she had experienced in prison, not to mention her clean-as-a-whistle record in her new life.

The judge merely mocked her, saying, “You’ve got a place to live now: Bucks County Correctional Facility for 90 days.” The public defender tried to interject but the judge was already calling for the next case.

more (the title is really not what the piece is about, actually)
I can only note that Mitya thought of Grushenka's past as definitively passed. He looked upon that past with infinite compassion, and decided with all the fire of his passion that once Grushenka told him she loved him and would marry him, a completely new Grushenka would begin at once, and together with her a completely new Dmitri Fyodorovich, with no vices now, but virtues only: they would forgive each other and start their life quite anew.
--TBK. Oh Mitya, you walking train wreck of a person. "When I get off the wheel, I'm going to stop...."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

TELL THEM THAT I'M YOUR GUN: I'm currently putting together the pieces for a science-fiction novel which will have as one of its themes the work of peacemaking. How can peace be built--not merely the absence of war, but a place of reconciliation and restitution?

So recommend things to me! If this idea makes you think of books, movies, whatever, why not email me? There's a link on the sidebar, or it's .

I note that this is not a pacifist novel and I'm not super interested in that argument; I'm interested in stories of peacemaking. (Stories which take place within severely disciplined and controlled environments with obvious power systems, like military units or prisons, and stories about people who themselves are kind of crazy and chaotic and not obviously peaceful, are especially welcome.)

Here, have a picture. (Via Andrew Sullivan.)

eta: In case this helps provoke ideas: I think I'm mostly looking for nonfiction, though fiction is also definitely welcome; and I'm very interested in stories of institutions designed/ostensibly designed to promote peace, reconciliation, healing, or rehabilitation which instead become complicit in violence and degradation. ...And thanks very much, to those who have already written with suggestions.
LET IT ALL GO: 2011 BEST-OF. I'm sorry this is so late!

Best books read (nonfiction): David Carr, The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life--His Own
Johnny Weir, Welcome to My World--a perfect cocktail of humility and glamour!
Christopher C. Roberts, Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage (video talk here and my comments on it here)
Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, Doubly Chosen: Jewish Identity, The Soviet Intelligentsia, And the Russian Orthodox Church
Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, And Think About Marrying

and it's just so different from the others that it deserves its own category, but I read the Sayings of the Desert Fathers for the first time this past year, and I know I'll be returning to them.

Best books read for the first time (fiction/whatnot): Imre Kertész, Fateless
Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
Christopher Coe, I Look Divine
Louis L'Amour, The Lonesome Gods
Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze

Best movies watched for the first time: Of Gods and Men
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains!
Ivan's Childhood
This Gun for Hire

also should be mentioned: Attack the Block (more), A Boy Called Charlie Brown, Black Caesar, Everything Must Go, The Hunger, I Start Counting, The Island (Остров), Less Than Zero, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Macbeth (1979), The Nun's Story, Smoke Signals, The Virgin Spring

Best theater (etc): The Mariinsky Ballet, Anna Karenina
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", Arena Stage
"Venus in Fur," Studio Theatre
Mariinsky, Giselle
"King Lear," Synetic Theater (I ultimately didn't think this production worked--it was a kind of commedia dell'arte/Eurotrash interpretation--but it was interestingly wrong!)

Best blog posts: "Stronger at the Broken Places"
"The Proper Basis for Marriage Is a Mutual Misunderstanding" (service journalism)
"How a Thrill Becomes a Law"
Notes from the Oriented to Love retreat
A series of posts, which I wish I could redo but which still have value, on the Mountain Goats

and a bit more service journalism: a list, with notes, of my favorite children's novels from Diana Wynne Jones

Best things I wrote (nonfiction, non-blog): "Beyond Liberalism," my essay for Cato Unbound's symposium on "traditionalism in a futuristic world" (and the follow-up, "Tradition's Comedies of Error"; my other follow-up, "Who Put the Tradition in 'Traditional Marriage'?", is fine but not as good)
"Flawed Reflection" (my review of the oh-so-controversial "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery"
"Breaking 'The Rules'" (review of Extravagant Expectations and Premarital Sex in America)
"How to Convert" (title is misleading!)

...And wow, I think that's it, since my Weekly Standard reviews are subscribers-only. Uh, I'll do better this year! Ouch.
UNCONVENTIONAL: I couldn't sleep after Black Caesar, so I decided to just throw on The Nun's Story and watch until I decided to go to bed. I ended up watching, totally engrossed, until the entire huge long movie was over.

Audrey Hepburn plays a Belgian girl who enters a religious order, hoping to be sent to the Congo as a nurse. The movie follows her deep spiritual struggles, mostly but not entirely revolving around questions of pride and obedience. The harshness of the religious regime under which she lives isn't prettified, but this story goes far beyond easy "individualism vs. repression" conflicts. This comes out most clearly when World War II breaks out--the nun's obedience is tested even more deeply, but at the same time she's also struggling with vengefulness and refusal to forgive her enemies.

The major flaw of the movie is that the racism of the Belgian Catholics isn't just portrayed, but basically embedded in the movie's narrative. The easiest example is the way in which all of the supporting characters are vivid and memorable except the one Congolese character with a speaking role, who is a pious cartoon. But that example is just the most obvious sign of a problem which really runs throughout the Congo sequence, even though the culture of the people is presented with quite a bit of affection and some respect.

Hepburn is fantastic. Like I said, I'd assumed that I would watch maybe an hour and then hit pause. I just couldn't. I couldn't stop watching her. Many of the supporting actors are as vivid as their characters, but this is really a one-woman show.
I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKER-PUNCH: So I went in to Black Caesar thinking it would be your typical blaxploitation fare: a social consciousness, definitely, but mostly just righteous fun. Friday Foster for dudes.

Do not do this, people! Good grief. Black Caesar is a terrific movie, but it is a real punch in the face. The racism depicted is brutal and nearly constant, and although the devastation criminal activity causes in families can be seen in a lot of blaxploitation movies (like Foxy Brown) it seemed especially raw and painful here. This left me feeling sad and kind of shattered.

Again: It's a great movie. But wow, like reaching in for your Cracker Jack prize and getting your hand chewed off.
ALL MY SINS MISREMEMBERED: Review of David Carr's Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life--His Own. I've read a bunch of addiction memoirs this past year, and this is the one which spoke to me the most, by far. Carr is a reporter and editor (currently writing for the New York Times, but I promise not to hold that against him), and he decided to use his investigative techniques to figure out what really happened during his years of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. He did interviews and reviewed the documentary record--rehab admittance reports, police reports, all the old bad memories.

You can tell what he found from the Norman Mailer tagline he uses: "Who could tell anymore where was what? Liars controlled the locks." Some of his mismemories turned out to make him seem worse than he'd really been--but mostly he found that he'd been much more of a thug and a loser than he'd let himself remember. He'd hurt women, made violent threats, and even after a rock-bottom night on which he left his infant twin daughters alone in the car while he smoked crack, he took months to finally get clean. (He'd remembered that as the turning point. And it was... but big trucks make wide turns, and they take some time.)

Carr's prose style is roughed-up, not quite tabloid, with a fine streak of gallows humor. (The chapter on his relapse is titled, "Additional Research.") The book is also deeply forgiving, with compassion toward literally everyone who crossed the path of Carr's trainwreck: not just his first wife, the dealer, but also, for example, the people who ran his last rehab, a somewhat ramshackle affair with too much emphasis on humiliation and restriction for your own good ("There is no humility without humiliation," as Mother Theresa said, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to take it on yourself to humble others) but a lot of genuine love and companionship. Maybe the best example of this aspect of the book is Carr's description of Jayson Blair, whom he clearly views as a fellow addict, fellow newspaperman, and fellow human being--not a catchphrase.

Carr was raised Catholic, in a deeply loving family. I'm sure this is one reason the book spoke to me so much; I'm guessing books with more familial dysfunction will speak more to people who came from more cruel, tumultuous, or broken homes. His descriptions of his own faith, a matter of trust and need and accepting the lack of answers, struck me as powerful and poignant. I may have choked up a bit when he described lying on a couch during a period of brutal cancer treatment, listening to one of his little girls upstairs, guiding her sister through a childlike prayer to Mary. There are snapshots of the ways in which editing can be a leadership role. (I interned at the Washington City Paper while Carr was EIC there, and from my perspective he was a fantastic leader, although he gives ample evidence for an opposing point of view in the book!)

One thing which really struck me about The Night of the Gun is that although his catastrophe days make up the majority of the page count, the book feels like it's much more about recovery and sobriety. Maybe that's because the entire project of the book is a recovery project, so even the darkest parts are embedded in a project of rebuilding the personal integrity shattered by active addiction. It seems like a lot of memoirists fumble for words when trying to describe both the work and the joys of sobriety. There can be a sense that the mere absence of pain is such a relief, in itself, that there's nothing left to describe, just a blank space. Carr really conveys so vividly the working, loving life of gratitude and creation and service.
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
--Ecclesiastes 1:17