Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dribs and Drabs

It's been a while since I've done one of these, so here goes....

Best Serious Read: Joan Didion's Blue Nights
Read it. You will read nothing better this year.  It will break your heart. It may also help mend your heart.

Love, loss, heartbreak, mortality, and denial. We all know these things. Joan Didion has the courage to write about them.

Best Crazy-Ass Fun on Basic Cable: American Horror

Two words: Jessica Lange.

She will creep you the hell out. The show is full of holes and faults, but it's as much fun as a carnival ride, and Lange is deliciously twisted.

Best Cheap Amazon Download: Diminished Capacity

Girl meets girl. Girl gets dumped by girl. Girl throws away promising Hollywood career for meth addiction and adventures in identity theft. AND IT'S ALL TRUE.

Julie Hansen's self-published ebook could use some editing, and it takes a little while to get used to her fast-paced, stream-of-consciousness writing, but it's well worth it. A friend who read it likened it to having a conversation with a really smart, witty speed freak - you may have to put it down, every so often, but you wont be able to help picking it up, again.

Six dollars you'll be glad you spent.

Best Illustration of Why The Internet Is Awesome: Was Monroe Raped? 

Watch it. All the way through. And, yes, I totally remember this.

Best Thing To Happen to Kid's Lit: TOON Books 

The best of comic book art meets great writing for beginning readers. They're awesome. I started with Luke on the Loose, and ended up buying the entire set of Toon Books for my nephew, who's discovered the joy of reading. 

Best Artist To Watch Out For: Jenn Hayes 

I discovered her stuff by accident via a friend on Facebook, and immediately fell in love with her creativity and playful style. I had to buy one of her papercrafting pieces for myself. And then another for friends who were celebrating their 25th anniversary. Watch this space: Jenn Hayes is going to be big.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Proustian Moment

I went to a weird, little liberal arts college where there was almost no structure. In some ways, it was goofy and ridiculous as hell. In other ways, it was pretty damned great. I think it was mostly pretty great. Most of the best people I know are people I met there. Many of the best times, were had there.

There was no set course list at Goddard. No such thing as a course catalogue. Instead, every semester, people would make suggestions about what group studies (never "classes" - they were called "group studies") should be available. Students would make suggestions. Faculty would make suggestions. Even staff would make suggestions. If the woman who ran the mail room had a suggestion, well, hell...she would be heard and her idea might just make the cut. This could be frustrating. It meant that the first week or two of each semester was spent figuring out what would be offered, who would lead groups, what readings lists and curricula would look like. There would be no English Lit 101 at Goddard. Why would there be, when the sky was the limit? Why would anyone opt for that, when they could choose, as I did my first semester, a group study called Madame Bovary and The Cat?  Madame Bovary and The Cat was the brainchild of Kathryn Davis : a group study in which participants read Flaubert's novel, spent months dissecting one book, and then, at the end of the semester, dissected an actual cat. It sounds crazy, but it was kind of glorious; dissecting a book and a character with our minds, and then moving to a lab setting, and using our hands to slice open a dead cat (who, incidentally, had been pregnant when she died...we opened her up to find a gorgeous litter of fully-formed, dead kittens inside - that was somehow fitting.) I remember the day we dissected the cat. None of us had any training in this area. It wasn't a science class. We were using scalpels and rubber gloves, but we were using them as literary tools. Kathryn looked at us (all four of us) and asked, "How should we cut, and why? Any ideas?" It was quite something. Instead of research papers, participants in the group were free to do whatever type of final project we chose. Why write an academic paper, when you could create a collection of personal effects for Emma Bovary? A birth certificate, passport, driver's license - all playing on Flaubert's vague and ever-changing descriptions of his protagonist. That was my project - the Emma Bovary dossier. Someone else created an installation that struck me as a tribute to repulsiveness. It consisted of an old, plastic soda bottle hanging from the ceiling, a slow but steady stream of pink, gooey liquid falling from it, leaving a disgusting puddle on the floor. I'm not sure what it meant, if it did, indeed, mean anything at all. But it wasn't boring. A paper on Madame Bovary would have been boring. Does the world really need another college term paper on Flaubert?

But I digress. I don't really want to write about my college experience, except by way of writing about an experience I had a few days ago. One of the last group studies I took at Goddard, and one of the more traditional, was called The Art of Memory. Mark Doty, who suggested the group and facilitated it, was interested in memory as a creative trigger for writers. It was Proust's moment with a cup of tea and a cookie - the moment that resulted in Remembrance of Things Past - that inspired the group study. The first volume was sort our class guide - we read it slowly, during the course of the semester, while also doing a number of writing exercises that involved using memory as a creative trigger. It seemed like a great concept but, to be honest, I found Proust incredibly boring and not at all moving or inspirational. At the last group meeting, Doty treated us all to tea and madeleines, with the idea that the combination would trigger memories for us the way it had for Proust. It didn't, of course. Because that particular combination was Marcel Proust's trigger, not mine. Proust's pivotal moment was, for me, just a cookie dipped in weak tea. Ho hum.

But everyone has his or her own tea and madeleines.

We've started getting cold weather in San Francisco. I happen to be broke, and buying a box of cheap, instant cocoa for $1.99 is cheaper than shelling out $2.00 for a cup of hot cocoa at a local coffee shop. A few days ago, when it was especially cold in the middle of the afternoon, I opened a packet of Nestle's cocoa, emptied it into a mug, and filled the mug with hot water from the electric kettle we have at work. I gave the hot cocoa a stir with a plastic spoon, threw the spoon away, and took a sip as I walked down the hallway towards my office. That subtle saltiness that's always there in cheap cocoa hit my tongue and, for a moment I left my body and found myself at another moment in my life.

I am very young and I know, somehow, that I am the youngest of my mother's children: there is no baby sister, yet. This means I am no older than 5. This means it must be no later than 1972. My mother and I have spent the day together, alone. A rare thing, and I can't imagine where my older sister is, but I don't really care. A day alone with my mother is like magic. I love being with her. She is fun and lovable. We are in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, near her job. She's taken me to work on this day, and then to a wholesale dealer of toys and novelties, where I was allowed to pick out a few items from the 50 cent bin. The afternoon ends with the two of us at a diner. Eating out is a rare treat in 1972, not a common occurrence, the way it is in 2011. I want to sit at the counter and spin around on the round stool. Yes, that's fine. We sit at the counter and eat sandwiches. Grilled cheese? Maybe tuna salad. Each sandwich comes with a dill pickle on the side and my mother, who never liked pickles, gives me hers. We also have tiny, metal bowls with crunchy cole slaw. So yummy. When the waitress asks my mother if she'd like coffee, she scrunches up her nose. She never drinks what we call "American coffee," meaning Maxwell House made in a drip coffee maker and kept warm for hours. In our family, we drink rich, finely ground, Puerto Rican coffee filtered through a colador - a muslin coffee sock.

Even I drink this strong coffee, with boiled milk and sugar. Even I know to scrunch up my nose at American coffee. Instead, my mother orders hot cocoa. The waitress asks if we'd like marshmallows or whipped cream. I look up at my mother, who smiles with her big, brown eyes and says, with a hint of fun in her voice, "Both!" I have had hot cocoa, before, but never marshmallows, and never whipped cream. When our mugs arrive, they're piled high with swirls of cream. My mother tells me to go ahead and taste the cream, but to be careful - the cocoa is very hot. She slides a spoon under the whipped cream and pulls out a melted mini marshmallow, blows on it to cool it off, and then spoon-feeds it to me as if I were, once again, her baby. A little of the cocoa is on the spoon and I taste a subtle saltiness. The same saltiness I will taste in 2011. The same subtle saltiness that will send me reeling back for just a moment, make me so happy to be in that time and place I'd almost forgotten about. The same subtle saltiness that, once the Proustian moment is over, will leave my heart aching and leave me without breath as I say to myself, out loud, "Oh...Ma...."

Oh. Ma.

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Toe Pick

My blogging over the years has been a bit of verbal jambalaya. I'm just as interested in the human condition as I am in the week's tv listings. I might blog one day about human rights, and the next about this week's episode of Boardwalk Empire. And why not? Pop culture speaks volumes about who we are and where we are in time. What we read, watch, listen to - it's all about stories, isn't it? And what is the study of human nature if not the study of the stories that human beings share, pass down, are drawn to at any moment in time?

A few days ago, I was flipping channels and stumbled upon a movie I have never been able to resist: 1992's The Cutting Edge. Now, I won't tell you this is a great movie, or even a good movie. It's not. It's cheese. But not just any cheese. It's visual Velveeta. You know the stuff. You laugh at it on the sly but, every so often, when you're all alone - or maybe with a close friend - nothing hits the spot like a grilled cheese sandwich made with Velveeta and Wonder Bread. Or maybe you get stoned (people still do that, right?) and find yourself with the munchies at  2am. You're not going to pull the brie out of the fridge and let it warm up to room temperature. You're not shaving paper-thin slices of imported parmesan. You're not Making toast points and grilling Spanish bleu cheese. You're going to pull out that big, yellow box, peel away the thick foil, and cut yourself a hunk of Velveeeta. Or you're going to turn on the tv and hope that The Cutting Edge is on cable.

It's ok to admit it.
I do.
I love that craptastic movie. If it's on cable, I HAVE to watch it. And I've come to realize that a lot of other people of my generation feel this way. But why? It's not the most interesting movie. There really aren't any laughs. It doesn't even have a memorable soundtrack or theme song. And it was released in 1992 - my teen years were long over by then, so it's not the whole "that's the movie I saw with my first love!" thing. People my age did not go see this movie on their first date. Sooooooo...WHAT'S THE BIG THING ABOUT THE CUTTING EDGE AND WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT GENERATION X?

I think I know.

This movie, although released in 1992, is a nod to the 80s. The last vestige of everything the 80s were about. We initially watched The Cutting Edge because Moira Kelly was hot (I'm a lesbian) and D.B. Sweeney was adorable (I'm gay, not blind), but we watch it again, and again because it's the best snapshot of the decade that preceded it. The decade when, for better or worse, people my age made the shift to adulthood. It's a dumb movie that we can't resist. The 80s?  A dumb decade that, try as we might, we can't resist having a little nostalgia for. And, if you're not resisting this nostalgia, but embracing it and think the 80s were just wonderful, I'm here to tell you that you're seeing that decade through bong-water-stained glasses. The 80s were fucking stupid, and our love for The Cutting Edge is a nod to our love for sheer stupidity. Think about it: it's a heterosexual love story that centers on FIGURE SKATING. It is the swan song to the decade when Brian Boitano told America that he was a straight figure skater from San Francisco, and America swallowed it, hook, line and sinker.

The entire decade was a 10 year tribute to stupidity, poor judgement, and bad taste. Synthesized drums. Acid washed denim. Shoulder pads. Leg warmers. Toni Basil. The Porky's movie franchise.

Stop fighting it.

Duran Duran was a shitty band.
Flashdance was an awful movie.
The California Raisins were stupid.
Max headroom was annoying.
Rainbows and unicorns were corny as shit.
Miami Vice has not aged well.
V.C. Andrews' books were creepy and badly written.
Ronald Fucking Reagan was a terrible, fucking president.

And that's it. That's what The Cutting Edge is all about. It's about how fucking crappy and stupid shit was for 10 whole fucking years, and how stupid we were to buy black rubber bracelets, wear shoes without socks, listen to Flock of Seagulls and think "Where's The Beef?" was funny. The brilliant thing about it - and you have director Paul Michael Glaser to thank for this -  about this silly, cheesy, little that it reminds us of our own stupidity - about the stupidity of an entire nation for an entire decade - and it does it in a gentle way.

I don't watch the toe pick scene and think, "Do they really expect us to believe that a guy who's been playing hockey for his whole life has no idea what a regular pair of ice skates looks like and what a toe pick is? I don't even fucking skate and even I know what it is. This is fucking idiotic!" I don't think that. I don't think anything close to that. I see that scene and think, "Awww...this is embarrassingly silly. Moira Kelly is so haughty and pretty. D.B. Sweeney is so freaking goofy and cute."

Scroll up and look at that picture. They're not fucking idiots - they're sweet and hopeful. And we love them, in all their stupidity, because we don't want to think of ourselves as the tacky, stupid generation who came into our own as conspicuous consumers of  complete and utter horse shit because we had such bad taste and poor judgement. We'd rather look back and think of ourselves as silly, lovable kids who played PacMan, loved Ghostbusters (which, BTW, is a fucking stupid movie), and listened to the Purple Rain soundtrack on our Walkmans until the cassettes snapped.

Toe pick.

Hey, don't blame me:  I was too young to vote for Ronald Reagan.

© 2012 Lana M. Nieves
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lana M. Nieves and for non-commercial purposes only. - Lana M. Nieves