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Slackerdom or, The Physics of Free Time

It’s been a hectic few months. Back when I worked 10-11 hour days simply tutoring, I somehow felt like I had more free time.  Even if it was only a couple hours a day, at least my time belonged to me.  But now that I teach classes at the community college, there are always papers to grade, lectures to write, and disengaged students to puzzle over. You never really stop thinking about these things. Planning.  Making mental lists. Turning mental lists into physical ones.  Sweet Santa, you should see the crazy lists I make! I even make lists of future lists that need to be made and sometimes, when progress feels unmercifully slow, I put things on the lists that I’ve already accomplished just so I’ll have something to cross off.

To some people, this level of neurotic list-making would seem to be the mark of a Type A, hyper-organized person, but for me, making the list is often the only thing standing between me and complete chaos.  I’m naturally disorganized; a slacker.  A friend recently asked me what I wanted out of life, ultimately, and my response was “One good day. One day when everything is done, and there are no more responsibilities, no obligations, absolutely nothing else that I should be doing.  I want to do nothing and not have to feel guilty about it.”  (I’m not sure what it says about me that my personal life goal is to achieve nothingness, a complete obliteration of ambition; on the one hand, it sounds a lot like Nirvana, but on the other, a death wish.) I spend a lot of time doing nothing, because I’m lazy and I procrastinate, but at least I have the consideration to feel guilt about my non-productivity.  And when I do get down to work in a sudden burst of efficiency, I rush, eager to return to my natural resting state as quickly as possible.

Time is like money for me; there can never be enough. I always want more free time, more more more, and yet I squander what I have on things that are not good for me.  When confronted with a large windfall, I don’t know where to start, and if I’ve learned anything about physics, it’s that when you try to move in every direction at once, you find yourself standing still. Give me a month of a freedom and I will piss it away.  Even the simplest goals wither like forgotten houseplants: read more books, start writing again, organize the closet. But give me an hour of autonomy wedged between meetings and appointments, and I’ll juggle three tasks without missing a detail.

Busyness, then, turns out to be an unexpected blessing.  When I work 12 hour days and still manage to cook from scratch, run five miles, maintain a social life, and get eight hours of sleep each night, I feel like a superhero.  And I don’t even have a spouse or children! When I work two part-time jobs six days a week and teach two classes, essentially commuting to at least three different locations (sometimes in the same day), plus course prep and grading that must be done on personal time — and yet — I still manage to plan parties, watch movies, and prepare numerous job applications.  I suddenly understand just how many hours are in a day.  The more finite time becomes, the bigger it feels.

As much as I may lust over the promise of the three day weekend or the two week break between semesters, I also greet its approach with dread. I try to tell myself, “This time it will be different. This time I will work on that project I’ve been saying I would start for the last five years, except every time I’ve had the opportunity, I spent two weeks in bed marathoning How I Met Your Mother or reading about weird crimes on the Huffington Post.” But those are hollow words.  Even before vacation begins, I know that the outcome is preordained.  Summer ends with the three stages of free time grief: disappointment (It’s really over, just when  I was finally working up the motivation to do something), regret (I can’t believe I wasted all of that time napping on the couch when I could have been swimming/seeing old friends/finishing my novel), and finally, shame (I am the most useless being in the universe; I don’t even deserve to have weekends off).

Right now I’m in a weird in-between place. One class I was teaching ended a few weeks ago and the workload for my other class is slowing to a trickle. I still work two part-time jobs and teach one class, but each day ends no later than 6:30 so I have moderate swaths of unstructured time. It’s hard to know what to do with myself when I get home in the evenings, which is an unwelcome state after two months of constant engagement. I never used to fear free time when I was younger. Sure, I felt bad about all the things I could’ve  should’ve would’ve been doing, but there was a sense of complacency about it. Time was expansive, never-ending.  Somewhere in those billions of seconds ticking away — or still waiting to be ticked — there was a perfect time in which things would just get done.  Things would happen. But I’m older now. Not old, just older, and there’s that part of me that is desperate to make some mark on the world, even if that mark is just an unintelligible scribble in an obscure corner. The way to make things happen is simple: just do something — anything — and even if you are going to do nothing, do it with purpose. Shaking off stasis is hard, though. I love to be lazy, but it’s better to remain an object in motion than surrender to rest.

Writing this is sort of a scribble, at least until I have something more important to offer. There are four items on my list of things to do today, but most of them are not urgent enough to demand my immediate attention.  After I submit this post, I am going to cook Aloo Gobi and probably watch a movie that Netflix thinks I won’t like (two stars). The production value will be low and the dialogue laughable, but I will love it. It will be my new favorite movie — this week. At that point it won’t even be 10 pm and I’ll still feel anxious about what to do with the rest of my night.  Irony of ironies: the only child, an introvert, has never been comfortable being alone with herself. My constant search for distraction has kept me from ever really putting my mind to something. Maybe I’m lonely, maybe I’m bored. I think I have ADD. Is this ennui? Why does a concept so empty have a word that sounds so glamorous and inviting? I like my life, I like my jobs. I have cat and I like him, too. I started writing a blog post, but ended up with a prose poem. I’ve been remembering all of my dreams for the last few weeks. I think I use “I” too much. I think I should go. Hello, chaos.

Why Korean Movies?: A Brief Introduction to the Korean New Wave

A few of my friends have approached me about this month’s topic — South Korean movies — somewhat befuddled.  Why Korean films? they want to know.  Is this “a thing?”  The short answer is, yes, this is a thing.  All of the movies I’ve watched this month were made within the last fifteen years, the result of a movement called the Korean New Wave.

In the article New Wave of Pop Culture Redefines Korea,” writer Andrew Salmon outlines the factors involved in creating this new wave.  At the end of the 80s, South Korea started the process of democratization, and within a few years the strict censorship laws started to loosen up.  Not only did the free flow of information across borders allow South Korea to absorb more Western culture, it also became easier for Korean film, music, and television shows to get distribution in other countries – including the U.S (Salmon).

By the time the late 90s rolled around, many of the filmmakers who would be crucial to the New Wave had come into their own, feeling liberated to take greater artistic risks that would have been prohibited in the earlier, more authoritarian era.  The first big hit that ushered in the wave was 1999’s Swiri (or Shiri, as it’s also called), an action movie that became an international success and allowed for bigger budgets and a global market.

Salmon’s article claims that the New Wave more or less ended around 2005 when Korean films became mainstream enough that they were no longer novel, but simply part of the international cinematic landscape.  An article from Yahoo! Voices, “The Rise (and Wane) of Korean New Wave Cinema,” partially attributes the bust to changing screen quota laws.  The screen quota law was another crucial factor that had encouraged the wave: the law required that Korean films be shown in theaters for 146 days of the year, giving more exposure to burgeoning local talent.  But in 2006, the quota was reduced to 73 days, meaning that all the other days of the year, theaters were free to show Hollywood and other countries’ movies (“Rise”).  Even in South Korea, the demand for native filmmakers had declined.

Through watching these movies, I’ve come to know many of the big name directors associated with the wave.  The two most prominent figures are Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho.  Park made a splash in his home country with the release of J.S.A. (which I covered here earlier in the month), a film that deals movingly with the forbidden friendship between North and South Korean soldiers at the border.  But he gained international recognition when Oldboy won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.  His style is flashy and often violent, brightly colored and full of dark humor.  It’s easy to put his films in the same class as Quentin Tarantino’s arty/ultraviolent ouvre (and Tarantino himself has championed Park’s films), except Park doesn’t make distracting or self-conscious references to other movies like old Q does.  Basically, he makes movies that are endlessly entertaining and badass in ways that a 15-year-old boy would love – but creative, unpredictable, and sentimental enough to elevate them beyond the sometimes gruesome material.

Bong Joon-ho’s films are a little harder to describe.  Often darkly comic, his stories tend to focus on covert actions that ripple out to affect an entire community and then dissect the relationships within that community.  He made a breakthrough with his 2003 film Memories of Murder, a true crime drama about a rural serial killer in the 1980s.  I saw it a year or two ago, so my impressions are hazy, but it was impressive and chilling, an interesting character study on the local police and detectives who were investigating the case.  Very reminiscent, in some ways, of Fincher’s Zodiac.  American audiences would know Bong best as the director of 2006’s The Host, a big budget genre-hopping monster movie with elements of horror, slapstick, and political satire.  This was the first Korean movie I ever saw, and it left me curious to see more.  His best film, however, is probably 2009’s Mother, about a murder that may or may not have been committed by a developmentally disabled teenager and his mother’s attempts to cover up the crime.

Other notable Korean directors include:

Kim Ki-duk (Samaritan Girl; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring; and The Isle, which I’m writing up soon)

Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters; The Good, the Bad, the Weird; and I Saw the Devil)

Im Sang-soo (The Housemaid, and The President’s Last Bang)

Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine and Poetry)

Yim Pil-sung (Antarctic Journal and Hansel & Gretel)

Kang Je-kyu (Swiri and Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War – which I plan to watch this weekend).

So, again the question: Why Korean movies? The average American moviegoer often feels alienated by foreign films, especially ones from Asian countries.  We feel that we lack the cultural literacy to understand the customs, character motivation, the sense of humor, and sometimes the difference in culture even changes the way we recognize emotional expression.  It doesn’t help that much of what finds success through the festival circuits lean toward the “arthouse” side.  I think Korean movies are interesting because, based on what I’ve seen, they’re generally more palatable to Western audiences’ tastes.  There’s a lot of quirkiness, humor, action, and schlubby, underdog characters who are easy to identify with.  The films show that the country probably has a ways to go as far as sexism is concerned, but otherwise they defy the Western stereotype of the coldly aloof, conservative overachiever. It’s hard to say how much of the filmmaking style and characterization in modern Korean cinema is the result of Hollywood’s influence and how much of it reflects the true local culture.  At this point, it’s probably a chicken-egg question.

The way the films meld Eastern and Western attitudes and aesthetics makes them feel fresh, even if you’re watching what might ordinarily be a garden-variety crime thriller or revenge fantasy.  Many of the tropes (cops, murderers, prostitutes, ghosts, mental institutions) are familiar, but we’re seeing them through a new set of eyes with a different set of cultural circumstances.  The way Hollywood clashes with Seoul, Communism with Capitalism, and Buddhism with Christianity all makes for a viewing experience that’s one part thrilling and one part comforting.  Not all of the movies I’ve been watching fall under the New Wave umbrella — as many of them were released post-2005 — but they’re clearly carrying on the legacy as they broaden their appeal and assert their right to compete in the global market.  For better or for worse, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho are making their Hollywood debuts in 2013 with Stoker and Snow Piercer, respectively.  And the cult popularity of Oldboy has prompted an American remake headed up by Spike Lee, a development that has been very controversial among fans of the original.

Recommended Places to Start

I’d advise checking out something by either Bong or Park, since they’re the most popular — and with good reason; both make films that are sleek and accessible.  For Park, I recommend either Oldboy or Joint Security Area (avoid starting with Thirst.  It’s great, but kind of messy and inscrutable).  For Bong, watch The Host.  If you like that, proceed to Mother and Memories of Murder.  If you like horror movies, check out A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s a little on the confusing side, but eerie and beautiful.  The American remake, The Uninvited, was apparently terrible.

Until next time, annyonghi-kjeseyo.

Other Resources

The Economist: “New Wave”

Beyond Thirst: The Korean New Wave

 

This Month: South Korean Films

Once October ended, I briefly debated whether I should continue writing about horror but then decided that I could experiment with dedicating each month to different types of films.  Right now I’m on a Korean movie kick.  Korean movies seem to segue nicely away from horror, with their wicked flare for gore and busting taboos.

I don’t really know a whole lot about Korean culture, and I’m definitely not a film scholar, but I know that South Korea has had something of a cinematic golden age in the last decade or so, producing interesting and globally successful directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook.  Bong is most well-known for the popular monster movie The Host, and Park for his cult-favorite Oldboy.  Park in particular has gotten a lot of attention stateside recently, with Spike Lee beginning production on an American remake of Oldboy and Park himself debuting his first Hollywood film, Stoker, which releases early next year and stars Nicole Kidman.

It’s hard to say what draws me to Korean movies.  They provide a nice alternative to the American aesthetic, with new cultural mores, twisty-turny plots, and run-times that can often try your patience (the 80-minute movie doesn’t seem to have caught on over there).  But like a lot of American films (especially indies), they don’t hold anything back, whether it’s an unflinching kitchen-sink character drama or an action film with all the explicit sex and violence you can stomach.  At least, that’s what I’ve observed so far.

The move from writing about horror to writing about Korean films is a little daunting.  Horror is a genre I’ve grown up with and I’ve watched more scary movies than I could ever count; I’m very familiar and comfortable with the genre conventions.  I’ve watched a decent amount of Korean movies, too, more than the average person, but not quite enough to make any coherent, intelligent statement about what defines these films, culturally or stylistically.  A month won’t make me an expert, but I hope to start seeing some patterns.

These are the movies I have seen.  The next ones on my to-watch list are I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay and Joint Security Area (both films by Park) Feel free to suggest others that aren’t on the list that are worth tracking down:

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Oldboy

Lady Vengeance

Thirst

Barking Dogs Never Bite

Memories of Murder

The Host

Mother

Antarctic Journal

The Housemaid

Secret Sunshine

Treeless Mountain

A Tale of Two Sisters

Howling

I Saw the Devil

The Good, the Bad, & the Weird

Male Beauty, Female Gaze, and the Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol

 

So…I know this isn’t Tumblr or anything, but I’ve been looking for a platform to discuss my little obsession (or as the Huffington Post calls it, a situation) with British star Benedict Cumberbatch.  My friend Ellie and I had a little discussion in the comments the other day about Male Gaze and Female Gaze and I realized that male beauty and the complexity of female desire are things I would like to explore in more depth.

I’ve only recently learned how to look at men, which is fucking depressing because I’m in my thirties.  But when I was younger, the men who were touted as sex symbols always turned me off or creeped me out a little (ugh, New Kids of the Block).  This is in part because a lot of heartthrobs are conventional-looking, which has never been my thing.  But it’s also because I could see the strings; especially when you’re a teenage girl, hot guys are marketed pretty aggressively.  Look at this guy.  You should find him attractive.  I think what creeps me out is realizing that someone behind the scenes has been thinking about my sexual desire.  Men are used to having images engineered to their desires and served up liberally, but the only time women’s libidos are considered is during seduction.  When a hunk of burning love is offered to me, I’m naturally suspicious of their motives; someone is getting off, and it sure as hell isn’t me.  I’ve had to retrain my thinking a little bit to allow myself to check out and appreciate a good-looking man – and feel entitled to do so (as long as I’m not a weirdo about it), rather than ashamed.

Ellie’s comments raised the issue of the objectification of men on television, lamenting, “…in the critical discussions I’ve read, they all talk about the Gay Male Gaze. Can we not talk about a Female Gaze at all? … [I]t’s just an automatic assumption that it must be a Male Gaze – there can be no such thing as a Female Gaze because women are to be objectified, they never do the objectifying.” Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo has an explanation for this phenomenon and discusses it at length in her great essay, “Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body.”  She talks about the emergence of a gay male aesthetic in the mid-nineties, due largely to Calvin Klein and Gucci ads that featured beautiful male models in their underwear (or sometimes completely nude).  She writes: “Throughout this century, gay photographers have created a rich, sensuous, and dramatic tradition which is unabashed in eroticizing the male body, male sensuousness, and male potency, including penises.”  Although these striking and controversial images may have been intended to appeal to gay men, Bordo argues that women have also been the beneficiaries in this beauty revolution. In other words, women learned everything they know about appreciating the male body from gay men.

I think another reason why we tend to assume that all gaze is male is because of the old cliché about men being “visual creatures,” more so than women.  I don’t know what the exact science is, but this always struck me as a bullshit excuse for some men to keep leering while neglecting their own physical appearance. For men, the idea that they might be judged and evaluated on their appearance the same as they have done to women is terrifying, so they placate women by citing neuroscience.  Physical attractiveness isn’t important to you.  You don’t see what you see.  Bordo is also unconvinced by this line of reasoning and explains that “Women aren’t used to seeing naked men frankly portrayed as ‘objects’ of a sexual gaze… So pardon me if I’m skeptical when I read arguments about men’s greater ‘biological’ responsiveness to visual stimuli.”  She believes instead that physical reaction to visual stimuli is a learned response, built through social conditioning. The Female Gaze, then, is something that we can cultivate as long as we allow ourselves to “see.”

Ellie is right when she says that male objectification is more prominent in the world of television, where female viewership thrives.   She cites Teen Wolf as an example, and I’d throw Supernatural out there, too.  Even Battlestar Galactica, the kind of sci-fi show that would normally be geared exclusively toward a male audience, tends to objectify the men as much or more than the women (in keeping with the BSG universe’s emphasis on gender equity).   There’s a lot for ladies to love about Mad Men beyond the female characters’ pretty dresses.  I think male objectification is even more common when it comes to anything marketed toward teens.  For some reason (again, creepy), we seem to focus more on the sexuality of teenage girls than adult women.  What else explains the popularity of Justin Bieber, Twilight, One Direction and other boy bands?

Obviously Female Gaze is a real thing, but it can be harder to identify for a number of reasons: women are out of practice when it comes to objectifying men; what women find attractive is frustratingly subjective; Female Gaze is often hard to untangle from straight Male Gaze.  What happens in a lot of cases is that a man’s emergence as a “sex symbol” is driven not so much by female desire but by male wish-fulfillment.  When a woman is marketed as a sex symbol, she only has to appeal to men, but when a man is marketed as a sex symbol, he must appeal to both sexes.  Women love him, but more importantly, men want to be him.  George Clooney.  Brad Pitt.  Once upon a time, Tom Cruise was a cool man of action.  Various incarnations of James Bond.  Men want us to find these men attractive because it ties into their own self-image.

I would like to present the popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch (star of the BBC’s Sherlock and rising Hollywood player) as proof that the pure Female Gaze exists.  He is an odd specimen, for sure: his prominent forehead and hollowed-out cheeks give him a slightly “rugged” quality, while his startling blue eyes and full lips push him toward the “pretty” end of the spectrum.  Additionally, his high cheek-bones and the way his eyes are wide-set and slightly angled evoke a third descriptor: “exotic.” These three elements could add up to a hot mess, and sometimes they do – he is a beautiful man but not always the most photogenic.  Critics describe his attractiveness in backhanded terms: unconventional, a “surprising” sex symbol, “unexpected” heartthrob, etc.  The unspoken idea is, We think he’s ugly but for some reason women like him.

Because of his unconventionality, I don’t get the sense that the BBC was initially pushing Benedict as a sex symbol, and this is part of why women respond to him so intensely.  He doesn’t feel packaged and sold, or at least he didn’t prior to the first season of Sherlock. I think to a certain degree, Steven Moffat (the writer/producer of the series) knew what he was doing when he cast Benedict as Sherlock Holmes; Moffat has praised his looks highly, calling him “dashing” and “this beautiful, exotic creature.”  As a result of Benedict’s unusual charms, female viewers feel like they have “discovered” him, which heightens the cultish adoration of his fanbase.  They are proud that they “get it,” that they can see beauty where others might miss it.  I think, in the land of straight girls, or at least brainy straight girls, difference is valued more highly than a scientifically “attractive” symmetrical face.  Male traits that are striking win out over the generic.  Straight male viewers don’t understand Benedict’s appeal and voice their criticisms loudly – calling him horse-faced, a lizard, an alien, etc.  I don’t think it’s about jealousy, even, just bafflement.  They want to get a handle on women’s desires, but they’re still trying to look at attractiveness from a particularly heterosexual male point of view.

Any discussion of what women find attractive is going to be subjective, and Benedict’s charms go far beyond the physical or tangible.  First, there’s the smoky baritone voice (goddamn that voice).  Then there’s his electric presence, a charisma so intense that, combined with his exotic looks, causes him to practically burn off the screen.  If his presence alone doesn’t make you a believer, then his interviews reveal a man who is quick-witted, intuitive, charmingly candid (and sometimes awkward), intelligent, and hilarious.  He’s sensitive in all the right ways (defends feminism, cares deeply about children in Africa) and manly in all the right ways (skydives, rides a motorcycle).  What thinking girl could possibly stand a chance in the presence of such a man?

He has rightly been called “The Thinking Woman’s Sex Symbol,” which is partially due to his geek credibility.  But I still think it’s a curious turn of phrase because we’re more used to hearing about the “Thinking Man’s Sex Symbol.”  I believe this is another double-standard of the Male Gaze.  Valuing a woman for her intellect or her unconventionality still seems a little revolutionary, even in 2012 (unfortunately, “thinking man’s sex symbol” is often a euphemism for “brunette” or “has tits smaller than a C-cup”).  I don’t know why we rarely talk about the counterpart for women; maybe we take women’s thoughts for granted or maybe it’s because we’ve bought into the whole idea that women aren’t as shallow as a men (or as visually oriented) and therefore “thinking woman” is redundant.  No matter; as an actor who has portrayed Stephen Hawking, Sherlock Holmes, Vincent van Gogh, Victor Frankenstein and various other geniuses, Benedict Cumberbatch can’t help but ooze intellectual (if not always sexual) prowess.

But just because there’s a cerebral component to his appeal doesn’t take away from the strong reaction provoked by the visual aspects.  Maybe it’s just me, but perfect symmetry is boring.  If you’ve seen one conventional pretty boy, you’ve seen them all.  I take one look at their faces and they’re burned into my brain; no need to ever look again.  But something about Benedict’s kooky, shape-shifting features invites me to keep looking.  They never settle perfectly on my mind so I have to double-take, triple-take, look and look again.  There’s always something new to see.  And so I gaze.

I will end my fangirling by sharing a few videos.

My favorite funny interview.  So adorbs!:

Benedict shows his storytelling skills in this radio interview by recounting his traumatic carjacking/kidnapping experience in South Africa:

And finally, nothing gets me hot like a beautiful man speaking eloquently about Modernist literature:

Thanks for humoring me!  Share your man-crushes in the comments!

Selfishness and the Creative Life

In Friday Night Lights, art student Matt Saracen wins an internship with a brilliant but eccentric artist.  The artist is the cranky sort who answers the front door in his underwear, destroys his creations in drunken temper tantrums, and is generally uncommunicative and difficult to get along with.  After he meets Matt’s pretty, blonde-haired and blue-eyed girlfriend, he challenges the boy about his ability to be a true artist while maintaining connections to the world and its everyday obligations.  The message is that to be an artist one must also allow oneself to be unlikable, unself-conscious, and solitary.

It’s true that there is something selfish about creating art but also about promoting it, especially in our social media age where I can reach out and annoy my friends every time I produce something. The most successful artists – both in the quality of their work and in their widespread acceptance – don’t seem to give a fuck what anybody thinks of them.  This is an attitude I have failed to cultivate (haven’t tried, really) and sometimes I think it holds me back in too many situations, creative or otherwise.

What I’m trying to cultivate now, before I can even deal with artistic achievement, is personality.  Obviously, I have a personality.  It’s hard to walk around for 31 years and not have an inner life, although I’m told that some people manage it.  I think I’ve seen them.  But my friends have complained that I rarely let my personality show or that I only let it come out when I’m less inhibited (booze).  The social media age is the best possible time for this “personality experiment,” where personality is carefully curated and mostly performative. Not unlike a troll, I treat my online identity as a kind of performance art, composing pithy tweets, censoring myself, or intentionally not censoring myself to make a point, writing blog posts, sharing links to things that hopefully function to make me sound more interesting.  None of these things are dishonest.  I am performing, but I am performing “me.”

So what does this have to do with art or creativity?  I am a writer, a poet, and my writing must logically be an extension of my personality, even if I’m writing about things that are clearly fictional or unrealistic.  Too often I have gone through life unaware of my own thoughts, impulses, and interests.  In cultivating my personality, I am forced to examine my thoughts and see which ideas might be worthy of writing about: ideas unique to my weird brain, extending from my weird interests.

This pursuit is navel-gazing, of course, and that’s the rub.  Writing itself is a private act, but the end result is made public; there’s a very fine line to be negotiated between the self-absorption needed to complete a creative work and the outward-facing nature of sharing with an audience.  Sometimes writers get defensive and want to draw a line in the sand: you’re either writing for yourself or you’re writing to please others.   Neither one of these can be true on its own.  Writing for yourself is called journaling.  Every writer with a goal to publish eventually has to walk the knife’s edge of composing without inhibition before editing without mercy.  This is just part of the process.

The bigger issue is the lack of self-consciousness needed to be a writer, not just in the writing process, but in the whole lifestyle.  Sure, it’s hard to expose yourself in confessional poetry or memoir, but you also have to be ruthless in exposing your friends, family, boyfriends, and girlfriends.  Many of them won’t take it well and you have to be prepared for the fallout.  Writers also steal.  That anecdote you told at a party?  It’s mine now.  The conversation we had the other day?  Repurposed for my characters in the story I’m writing.  Being a writer feels unethical sometimes, like being a muckraking journalist doing whatever it takes to “get the story.”  Writers also risk alienating their readers by writing about dark, disgusting, unpopular and controversial things.  Readers often misinterpret these darker fascinations and say that an author is condoning distasteful subject matter when really the author is approaching the idea with a critical eye.

But is it worth it?  The hours spent alone.  The hours spent letting go of self-consciousness to produce difficult work.  Potentially destroyed relationships.  The social experiences forgone at the expense of time spent alone.  Writing things people might find repugnant, offensive.  Is it worth doing these things if it means broken friendships and alienation?  If you’re only writing to please yourself, than maybe it’s worth it for the sake of catharsis.  But if you’re writing with the hopes that someone will read what you are writing — what if no one is reading it?  Is it still worth it?  Does artistic creation have intrinsic value even when no one appreciates it?  Is it worth making the sacrifices an artist might make to create art that no one is consuming?

I don’t know if I can let go of my self-consciousness.  I’ve always cared too much what other people think of me.  There’s a constant struggle between things I want that might not be socially acceptable and the desire to fit in. Minimize conflict with the world around me.  I want to wear wacky fashions in public, act like the eccentric my grandmother always told me I could be, make jokes about rape and what it’s like to feel ugly.  I want to go to the theater alone to watch the new horror movie because none of my friends will go.  I want people to hear my voice.  I want to feel like my voice is worth hearing.  But I also flinch when I remember all the times kids called me a weirdo, a freak.  When my friends shamed me for saying inappropriate things, when boyfriends balked at my “intensity.”  I want to be normal, I do.

But normal is getting in the way.  I haven’t written poetry in almost three years because the poetry I wrote didn’t “fit in.”   Halfway through my MFA program, I stopped thinking of myself as a  “real poet” because my sensibilities were different, not acceptable by literary standards, and I didn’t recognize myself or my work in any of my classmates. I didn’t want to write “serious” poems about fathers, grandmothers, or botanical imagery.  I wanted to write about zombies and hermaphrodites, hoping that impressions and images were enough without having to have some deep philosophical message.  I wanted to write books of poetry that were also graphic novels.  I was not a serious writer.

So, I cultivate my personality.  With the hope that one day it will lead me back to poetry, the poetry I want or need to write even if it doesn’t fit in the with the proper stuff I was taught to write in almost nine years of workshops.  Or! Maybe I’m just not a poet anymore, and the words that will eventually bubble out of me won’t take that form.  This is part of the reason why I take to social media now, that most self-indulgent form, and express myself in any possible way – status updates, tweeting, blogging – not with the sole purpose of inflicting myself and my insipid thoughts upon my friends (although that is what I’m doing) but as an exercise in losing some self-consciousness, saying things I wouldn’t have allowed myself to say before (too caustic or inappropriate), attempting to make jokes (even when they fail), and exposing some of my more fucked up interests (memento mori photography).  These actions are inherently selfish.  I post and await comment, taking perverse joy in people’s reactions.  Unself-consciousness in the social media world is, paradoxically, the exact same thing as self-consciousness.  Much like writing itself: the artifice that doesn’t look artificial.

Maybe some people won’t like what I have to say or how I say it.  Maybe a lot of people — and I don’t know how to feel about that.  It’s worth noting that I’m not exactly a provocateur, and I don’t say shocking, mean, or controversial things.  I’m not a shit stirrer, just someone who likes to get a little attention and feedback (who doesn’t?).  I’m not quite ready to answer the door in my underwear, but I do need to get a little freakier, adopt a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, and learn to live with a little selfishness.  Friends have often criticized me for being self-absorbed but my attempts to fix that flaw have resulted in a losing battle.  Maybe it’s time to embrace self-absorption and see what happens.

Women vs. Humor

I’m tired of the debate about whether women are funny, or if they are as funny as men.  This article ran in Slate on Friday and inspired the predictable “women are like this” and “men are like this” comments: men who aren’t attractive rely on humor to get laid; any woman can get laid any time she wants; attractive women have never had to worry about rejection; attractive people have too easy of a life; humor in a woman upsets the power imbalance; self-deprecation in a woman is pathetic rather than funny; look at the difference in numbers between successful female comedians and successful male comedians; not a single female comedian measures up to any of the “greats” of male comedy, blah blah blah.

If we really want to have this conversation in an honest way, we need to recalibrate our criteria for what is funny and face the fact that men have dominated humor and wit for most of Western history (as they have in every other realm: politics, art, writing, business).  Naturally, our default idea of what constitutes humor is filtered through the male sensibility.  And you can’t make the argument that because men and women both find male humor funny it’s some sort of proof that men win at comedy.  Of course women find men funny when men have been the only source of comedy as far back as you go.  Comedy as we know it is male.

Women can be funny as long as we aren’t defining humor strictly by the standards that men have set.  Wit is the result of social conditioning and cultural context, and if you don’t believe me, try watching comedies from the 1930s or 40s and see how often the jokes hit home for you now. Women are having to define for themselves what “female humor” is, just as they had to do for other art forms when they first started writing novels, or publishing poetry, or acting on the stage.  We had to define ourselves within the tropes that men had already established, or by reacting against those tropes, because creating something entirely new and original is difficult to master at first.  Don’t declare women comedians a failed experiment just because we got off to a rocky start.

When it comes to the argument that funny women are unnerving to men because it upsets the balance of power, well, don’t make me pull out Bakhtin on your ass.  There’s the concept of “laughing up,” that humor and laughter work best when the lower classes or otherwise powerless people mock those in power.  Kings making fun of the peasants is mean-spirited, but for the peasants, laughing up at their oppressors relieves the grimness of their condition.  In this sense, it seems that humor should absolutely be the realm of women within a patriarchy.  That may sound a little more militant that I intended, and I hate implying that women should always be seen as “victims,” but I’m also not the one who brought the whole “imbalance of power” into the comedy debate in the first place.  Men and women both have a lot of things on their minds, some of them disturbing, and we all have the right to make jokes about those things.  Even if those jokes manifest themselves in different or unrecognizable ways.

The Bakhtinian argument can be made the other way, I suppose, if we are defining “power” as purely erotic as opposed to the broad “battle of the sexes.”  When it comes to sexual power dynamics, a man could be seen as “lowering” himself by making jokes, and in this way he endears himself to a woman by making himself appear less aggressive and threatening.  This butts up against the cultural myth that women hold all the cards when it comes to sex; men want it and women are the gatekeepers who either give or withhold (apparently lacking any desires of their own).  Women can have sex any time they want, the myth goes, even ugly women can find someone desperate enough to fuck them.  Men, by contrast, are less physically attractive and have to work harder to get sex, employing jokes as a tool to make up for their shortcomings.  I call bullshit on this for a number of reasons.  I hate the “evolutionary psychology” arguments that try to explain the differences between the sexes in strict gender roles and boil everything in life down to who gets laid and how.  Why does comedy have to be all about sex?  Also, it’s just not true that all women could have sex anytime they want it.  If we weren’t selective, sure, but that goes for men, too.  Most men could get laid if they were willing to be as “desperate” as they expect women to be.  If they were willing to settle for a 4 instead of a 7.

On the point of “men picking apart their flaws is funny, women doing the same is sad,” my response is: Dude, that’s your issue, not mine.  If your first response to a self-demeaning joke is to say, “Oh, sweetheart, don’t be so down on yourself!” that’s something you need to get over.  Much like the military trying to keep women off the front because men might fall over themselves trying to “save” the little ladies, that’s a problem for the men to resolve, not the women who choose to be there.  If I invite you to laugh at me (or with me), accept the invitation.  The fact that men (and some women) don’t find that kind of humor funny isn’t a defect of the joke itself but rather their (culturally conditioned) response to the joke.  You don’t need to protect my vanity because, contrary to popular belief, I don’t have a constant and never-ceasing need to be seen as pretty in every situation.  Sometimes I’m just existing as a human.  Sometimes I look like shit or I do stupid things and that’s a funny reality that needs to be acknowledged instead of swept aside with a dismissive, “You look fine.”  Self-esteem has to come from within, and I accomplish that more efficiently by laughing at myself than by looking for someone else to validate me.

I just want people to be more open-minded when considering whether women are funny or not and accept that what we think is funny is the result of social conditioning or a very limited view of human sexual interaction.  I’m not a comedian myself, so I don’t have a dog in this race, but I am a woman who likes to joke around a lot and I bristle at the idea that I’m turning men off and threatening them with my sarcasm or dry observations about the dark, absurd things in life.

One of the best compliments I ever got was from a guy I dated who asked if I would consider going with him to a comedy club open mic night where we would both do stand-up.  I never worked up the courage, but I was flattered that he thought I was funny enough to try it.  He even seemed to find it attractive.  Imagine that.

Clearing out the cobwebs

I didn’t realize that SXSW would knock me into a six-month hiatus, but here I am, trying to remember my password and how to upload songs or images.

A few things:

I mistakenly thought the upcoming CD releases were looking pretty ho-hum this year.  I have a lot of respect for the Walkmen, but I’ve never exactly devoured their catalogue, and I thought I was over the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Of Montreal, but recent reviews have reignited some of the old excitement.  I’m eager to get ahold of Junip‘s new album, Fields (Jose Gonzalez‘ band), The ClientelesMinotaur EP, and the forthcoming Belle and Sebastian record.  See? 2010 isn’t a total bust, after all.

My obsession with Scandinavian pop music has grown over the months, and finding a couple of great blog resources has only stoked the fires: All Scandinavian and It’s A Trap are a couple I’ve been looking at.  Recently, I’m searching out Finnish bands, particularly if they sing in Finnish — but they have proven a bit difficult to track down in a lot of cases.  I do recommend a group called Regina who makes off-kilter pop music with equal parts jazz and trance influence.

The scandi-pop taste has extended to a few guilty pleasures, as well: Robyn and Annie (I dare you to get “Chewing Gum” unstuck from your head. Hint: you can’t).  I won’t lie — it’s a little easier for a nerd like me to admit I enjoy dance pop if it comes from Sweden, although it’s hard to tell if the quality of craft and songwriting is any different/better than their American diva counterparts.  When evaluating electronic pop music, I ask the most important question: can I run to it?  According to this standard, Robyn’s Body Talk, Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, no matter what most critics say (although “Fembot” is still pretty bitchin’).  And just when I thought I couldn’t love Junior Senior any more after Hey Hey My My Yo Yo, I finally got around to listening to their first full-length album, D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat. I have to say: of all the bisexual Danish party-bands out there, Junior Senior are my favorite by far.

That’s the wrap-up for now.  I’m looking for some new stuff to get excited about, so if there’s something I absolutely-must-listen-to-right-now, please tell me!