Archive for the ‘Storytelling’ Category

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Best of 2013

2013.December.31

I am by no means an exhaustive consumer of media, but this year had some gems that I feel compelled share. Simply put, this list comprises things I experienced that helped me grow & love better in 2013. No rank or order is implied; “Honorable Mentions” are older but were new to me in 2013.

Favorite Concept: “self-othering”
To self-other is to claim narratives of the powerless for oneself with little or no authentic claim to such levels of powerlessness. Examples might include the concept of “reverse racism”, equating being “broke” with actual poverty, exoticism, framing “language police” as equally oppressive to the use of offensive terminology, borrowing from an unfinished struggle to promote a contemporary one (e.g., “gay is the new black”), and the claim that polyamory is a queer and/or oppressed status — but most instances are actually far more subtle. By its privileged nature, self-othering is far more pernicious in educated, hetero, white, cismen [friendly wave]; it is not usually a conscious co-option, which makes it difficult to recognize in oneself, but I suspect anyone who examines zir own social power will struggle with it at some point. Perhaps even those with very little social privilege could benefit from remembering that actual physical and societal oppression feels different for every person and every circumstance. This concept needs to be contemplated and discussed widely, so we might all better catch ourselves exercising the power of naming and the privilege of inclusion; try not to water it down too fast, Internet.
Honorable Mention: Intersectionality
The Grand Unified Theory of social activism, where those deconstructing sexism, racism, classism, and countless other systemic power disparities compare notes. In a few more years, the Internet may relegate it just another dialectal buzzword, but for now it has teeth as a thoughtful and dynamic post-social-justice outlook.

Favorite Discussion Piece: Orange Is the New Black
I cannot say I exactly love this show, but I absolutely love to watch and participation in its deconstruction. I dare anyone to read White Chick Behind Bars and not feel personally challenged somewhere. Some friends have begun to shy away from discussing OITNB publicly because the critiques made them feel like bad (white) people, but to let call-out critiques of such a complicated, try-hard show brand it irredeemable would be just as short-sighted as to review it purely for cinematographic and storytelling qualities. In these discussions, there is the opportunity to examine where poetic license and politics collide, to ask which is making us feel uncomfortable this week (and whether it was the show’s intent), and to celebrate the heretofore overlooked perspectives now receiving thoughtful screen time. Until perfect art comes along, let us continue to be motivated by imperfect art that keeps us talking, introduces us to new situations, and makes us check our assumptions about what a titty-shot really conveys.

Favorite Blogger: Ferrett Steinmetz
I discovered Ferrett shortly before his earth-shaking Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Some Fucking Awesome Sex went viral, but he’s been posting all over for a while. In Ferrett, I found a rare straight guy who could not only educate but inspire me: atypically male, relatable, passionately self-aware, sex-positive, polyamorous (but kind of relaxed about it), thoughtful about the creative process, AND prolific. Every time I approached one of his posts expecting a mere oasis from the kind of entitlement narratives that poison me against my fellow white guys, Ferrett transports me levels beyond by finishing thoughts I hadn’t even started yet. His approach is to excise common misperception from reality with quick, deft text grounded in everyday experience — and he owns it when he messes up! The man writes about anything without wasting a word; I can trust that if I don’t find a particular post profound, SOMEONE ELSE WILL. Not that I’m saying you should idolize him (or anyone else).

Favorite Music: Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
A late arrival in my year; I was slow to pick up this album because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to my first impressions of the hottest android-impersonator in music, but I was wrong. So very wrong. I’m just starting to dig into the mythos she’s created and the funked out fusion she’s worked into the tracks, but I know this album will be getting a lot of play in 2014.
Honorable Mention (album): Black Snake Moan Soundtrack
I could spend the rest of my life debating where the movie sits on the line between “problematic” and “irredeemable”, but its highest point was the filmmakers’ engrossing love letter to Delta blues.
Honorable Mention (song): Lupe Fiasco (with Guy Sebastian), “Battle Scars
The conscious rapper dropped this crossover hit — questioning the battle-like nature of relationship discord — and went platinum. Yes. This.

Favorite Movie: Gravity
Another item I feared couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. I was left breathless the first time I saw the two-minute trailer, and the movie theater experience was basically 90 minutes of the same. I won’t say it’s the best story ever (and I really think I would have liked Robert Downey, Jr., to have kept the part that eventually went to George Clooney), but its telling is gripping and its visual achievements should do to space what Jurassic Park did to dinosaurs: raise the bar to impossible heights and dare every movie that follows to choose between pitiful homage or pointless improvisation. Along the way, it instilled for me a dread of what happens down here on Earth should our skies ever receive such a disaster.
Honorable Mention: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Another visual spectacle, Beasts is carried by a six-year-old thriving in Southern myth-making — and yet I can’t watch it without cross-referencing myth-like places and people I’ve known. The stories from behind the scenes are just as breathtaking.

Favorite Parody: Pretty much anything riffing on Blurred Lines
The horror of the original song/video/message isn’t the kind of thing you can rectify with academic deconstruction or even conscious indignation — you need a good genderfucking parody or two.

Favorite Reads: Parenting on the Internet
Perhaps even more than Ferrett’s piece above, this piece showed how parenting can provoke individuals to look within for change. The RenegadeMama sees the greatness in her son’s gentle nature and, going against her won inclinations, decides to let it stand. It’s impossible to encapsulate its brilliance without lifting swaths of text (which you should go read for yourself), but I can say this: it made me appreciate parents and parenting a little more, and it even fostered forgiveness for the ways my own family had tried to socialize me against my gentler inclinations. That’s powerful wordsmithing right there.
Honorable Mention: Cat’s Cradle
My lover put this book in my hands and told me to read it; she is wise, and there will be celebratory tattoos. The legacy of a dead scientist draws a listless writer to a banana republic with an outlaw religion and a captivating woman. Sardonic wisdom and global change ensue.

Favorite Introspection: Defining Allies and Their Role
I should note that this conversation is far from over, so rather than trying to encapsulate it how about I share a tiny sample and you go join the conversation yourself?
Growing Up Online: Why & How I Care About the Comments
8 Ways Not To Be An Ally — A Non-Comprehensive List
For Whites (Like Me): On White Kids
Holy Gender Politics, Batman! How a D.C. Punk’s Music Video Sparked an Identity Controversy
Honorable Mention: Call-Out Culture
Another unfinished debate, is “calling out” the Internet’s greatest act of justice, a stalled strategy that’s keeping allies from necessary reflection, or flat-out liberal bullying? Is anger and vitriol on another person’s behalf ever justified, even helpful? What are our assumptions about people who call out? about people who don’t? Is there something better they could be doing? Reply hazy, try again.

Favorite Polyamory Topic: All Good Right?
Alan from Poly in the Media shares a few thoughts from himself and several other long-time poly writers on the assumptions that can slip into nonmonogamy and how rapid growth of the identity has made it harder to check such foundational misunderstandings.

Favorite Cracked Article: 5 Mind-blowing Facts Nobody Told You About Guns
Just read it; you won’t be disappointed.

There! You get ten. But here’s one to grow on, my favorite piece that I’ve written this year. Feel free to add it to your Best of list!

How Dyadism Ruind the Best Moment at SexTalk

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My Third-World Mouth

2010.August.31

By the time I had dental insurance, a little money saved for non-emergency medical care, and a stain on my teeth that upset me enough to do something about it, I was 23 and living in Washington, D.C. I found a dentist just up the street from my K Street nonprofit, booked an appointment and acted like it was any other medical check-up when I went. When I sat in the big chair for the hygienist, she asked me how long it had been since I’d been to a dentist. “Never,” I said, “this is my first time.”

She cocked back and opened her eyes wide. “Were you raised in a third world country?” she flapped. If I hadn’t been at a low point in my Texan pride, if I hadn’t gone to D.C. in part to escape the increasingly regressive politics here, if I hadn’t been so focused on how I wasn’t measuring up to the D.C. lifestyle and my entire life up to that point was the problem, I might have been offended on behalf of my home state. Of course, there was an even deeper pride that managed to mutter an appropriate response…

“Couldn’t afford it.” And with that, I allowed it to be implied that the American working class, or at least my portion of it, constituted a third-world country.

Prove me wrong?

I mean, I can do the research as well as anybody, but there’s also something to be said of experience; there were a lot more perfect teeth in at college and where I was working in D.C. than there had been on the eastside of Fort Worth. My mom didn’t get dental coverage until I was well into my teens, and by then we just weren’t into the habit. In fact, even today, I’m pretty sure my mom’s still using a bridge that is older than I am.

After the hygienist finished insulting me, she was surprised to find that my teeth were in remarkable shape. They were crooked, they needed a good cleaning, and I definitely shouldn’t have been flossing more, but after 23 years, I had nary a cavity. Not even one. (Guess all that dental instruction in elementary school did help.) Since I’d fallen so far behind and did have something to learn (oh, so the brush is supposed to get at the gums, not avoid them…), I got the regular check-ups for the remainder of my D.C. career.

I never feared dentists, like you hear so much about. I don’t particularly enjoy getting drilled or scraped or any of that nonsense, but the expense and the bother were the only things worth justifying.
Six months after a rather rough cleaning, I came up with my first and second cavities. I had made it 23 years, but 18 months and some aggressive cleanings later, there they were. Maybe it was just my working class suspicion of anything that seems remotely luxurious (by which I mean “optional”, something with which I’m sure most middle- and upper-class Americans would still take issue), but I had no restraint in flippantly declaring that dentists cause cavities from that point on. I still don’t fear them, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I have trouble trusting them.

But who wants crooked teeth? They had kept me from modeling in college, you know (that and bad posture — chiropractors constitute a luxury, too, you know; you should see my brother’s spine after the number of car accidents he’s been in…). I only allowed the dentist to refer me to an orthodontist after he scared me with enough stories about cross-bite and how bad crooked teeth could be for long-term dental care. I couldn’t care less about having prettier teeth (as long as I was brushing regularly, they looked fine to me), but healthier… well, it would save me more trips to the dentist down the road. So I did two and a half years on Invisalign, and most of my teeth are pretty now. I no longer have the cross-bite, but neither can I close my jaw all the way.

Orthodontic coverage in most dental plans stops at 18, so the fact that I had no children meant that I had ortho coverage in name only. I had to lean on family to pay for the rest, because while I had outstanding benefits, I was still just starting out salary-wise.

My wisdom teeth were late bloomers, arriving mostly around the same time as my braces. We worked around them with the Invisalign, but the orthodontist told me again and again I should have them out. They’re superfluous; they’ll get in the way; they might not grow in correctly. The pain was a little uncomfortable, but they grew in on their own (in their own sweet time). They were a little hard to reach with the brush, but I thought I did alright.

When I moved back to Texas, my income became much lower and more sporadic, and benefits non-existent. Since my teeth were doing much better, I skimped on adding dental to my expensive individual health plan. I finally got around to adding it again about four years later, and it’s still taken me months to make the time to go in.

Ugh, I don’t ever want to see those pictures of my wisdom teeth again. Turns out my brush really couldn’t reach them, and five years really was too long to go without a cleaning…

So this afternoon, they’re coming out, all four of them (although only two are problematic at the moment). The office manager convinced me this was the best way to go because I could save money on the anesthesia.

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Texts from the Edge (Well, the Shore…)

2010.June.26

These are excerpts from text conversations I had through my first day at the Texas Democratic Convention. While I have a Twitter, I do not post to it from my phone. Parentheses () indicate someone else’s response. Brackets [] indicate a note I’ve added here. If anything isn’t clear let me know.

[I left Austin before ten and arrived in Corpus Christi at 12:30. I should have eaten before going in…]

Safe, sound, and parked for free on the… um, wet! shores of corpus! Here I go, wish me luck…
Aside from NARAL giving out lube, the booths are very disappointing this year…
Proof the Dems don’t have their shit together: this venue has two eateries, both of which have been sold down to nachos since I got here.

[Local Caucusing]

We’re already getting into pissing contests for party officers. Oh shit, someone just brought up the Texas Two-Step
(That’s today’s headlines…)
Is it? I’ll have to look for it. I abstained because none of the candidates seemed objective.
I never noticed before how many people are disabled here.
Wendy Davis sounds a lot more like a politician than she did two years ago. Very inspiring and vague.
And it was pretty clear that the party insiders had a group pre-selected. Ho hum.
“We will elect someone who is […] an independent thinker and listens to the people.” [I forget who this was, either one of our caucus leads or our local Bill White organizer, but the contradiction made me chuckle.]
Having walked to the nearest Burger King, I can see how the convention center gets away with charging $5 for small nachos…

[Calling the convention at 6]

Music provided by the POW/MIA band. Blink. Blink.
It’s actually quite awkward for people to walk into the band playing, the conductor talking, and an unofficial rendition of ‘God Bless America’ being sung with one unknown voice coming from on high.
The Black Eyed Peas are officially past their prime when old white politicians come onstage to them.
Invocation awkward, preferential…
Also a mariachi band playing on cue for one speaker. They sound more skillful than the Vet Band, but refused to stop playing until the song was over.
“This is the year!” This is ALWAYS the year… [cf. 2008]
“We are the little people!”
I think the current speaker’s lobbying us to focus on recruiting Hispanics. And she doesn’t appear to know that bluebonnets are violet in color…
Wonder if anyone’s ever researched party strength against general polarized thinking…
The media is better than last time. Mission impossible video is well-made and engaging… if cheesy.
The vote for permanent convention chair didn’t even wait for the nays before calling it. [“All those opposedtheayeshaveit.”]
I’m sweaty from my walk earlier… Possibly stinky. :/
Wow, they’re really hammering Perry over the mansion.
Oh, we’re getting a montage of videos. Some are really good. One is rather questionable/hypocritical though…
Made it 45 minutes before they started asking for $…
They showed a Kay Bailey Hutchison ad! Hmmm… [the one that bothered me above was one of hers, also, which explains that]
Lone Star Project touting how they are “Fighting Back with Facts” but their whole ad was a dig on Perry’s hair
Wonder what happens to all the Rubbermaid buckets they use to collect donations…

[Bill White Introduction and Speech]

“$18 billion deficit not good enough!”
Bill White gets like 8 intro speeches… [actually 3]
I wish the people who reference Perry’s sympathies would learn to pronounce “secede” more distinctly from “succeed”.
White’s daughter seems very political…
White comes out to “Start Me Up“. It’s been done. He should have come out to Black Eyed Peas instead.
He says the Democrats are the oldest political party in the world. Hmmm…
(That might need fact checking.)
My thoughts exactly. I know it’s the oldest in the U.S. [Looks like he may have been right.]
Ah, the awkward moment when a chant is started and people have to listen to figure it out before they can join in.
White: Perry only schedules 7 hours of state business a week. Taking record federal money but writing a book about states rights.
Dems are so excited about White they’re running 45 minutes ahead of schedule.
He got in a dig at the Republican scheme to help the Green Party.
He’s a great speaker: lots of info, not just rhetoric.

[Aftermath]

I like the Dems and all but damn the energy is repressed here. Where is the kinky caucus???
What’s with the people who raise their hands like calisthenics during benediction?
Watching the aftermath as people leave… Nary a visible tattoo or mischievous smirk to be found…
Only protesters I’ve seen are working a small table outside. They think Obama isn’t liberal enough and root for someone named Kesha Rogers.
I just helped a guy who lost his keys… by leaving them on top of his car. ;) [I also have a knitting bag I grabbed from the seat ahead of me… I’m pretty sure I’ll spot the woman tomorrow to return it.]
I’m all done! Leaving downtown and looking for halfway decent food…
When am I not a work in progress? ;) Besides, first rule of event-planning: the agenda isn’t final until the event is over!
My spring rolls AND my tom yum had unexpected and un-extractable onions. Corpus hates me. Wendy’s here I come…
Much to my surprise, the Texas Democrats do not yet have a platform item for bringing JJ and Prentiss back to Criminal Minds, but I’m doing what I can to raise awareness.

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Who Is Savannah?

2009.March.31

[I thought I posted this yesterday… anyway, it’s here at last!]

The pertinent reason for my Birmingham disclosure was that my traveling companion had a similar moment of self-discovery in Savannah. Without going too far into telling someone else’s story, I will share that she is another White Southerner (though from a different part of the South as me), for whom Savannah highlighted a personal conflict: ambivalence in one’s personal heritage, taking pride in some-but-not-all elements (both traditional and subversive) and shame in others.

The Savannah I saw in 2009 was very different from the one I had seen in 2005. This year, I saw little-to-no evidence of conspicuous segregation between White and Black – quite the contrary in fact. Many shops (and even our motel) were surprisingly integrated, with customers and staff inclusively White, Black, and even occasionally Latino. Only River Street, Savannah’s most densely tourist district, matched what I had seen before; the color line there was almost literal, with the waterfront populated almost entirely by Black buskers and the cityfront lapped by waves of White tourists meandering in and out of shops and restaurants. I was, as before, engrossed by the atmosphere and attitude of SCAD, even as its urban sprawl reminded me of NYU in The Village and its funky White eclecticism belied the rest of downtown’s pleasant integration. Generally, there was a lack of visible tension or ominousness like in just about any other downtown, so much so that it seemed the economic downturn had not hit Savannah very hard (yet).

Downtown Savannah seemed less mysterious than the Spanish moss might lead one to believe, but then we took the time to watch “The Movie”, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The film and its source crime narrative are largely responsible for tourism in Savannah since the 90’s. I was once told that the fascination with ghost tours and gothic statues did not really exist before The Movie’s 1997 release, but seeing the film raised a lot of questions about its prominence, especially since the film’s supernatural aspects are more ambient than relevant, and there is rarely in downtown any open reference to any of the story’s character or events.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a lightly fictionalized account of an actual murder that happened in Savannah in 1981, when a wealthy, middle-aged antiques dealer killed his gay lover in the historic home of Johnny Mercer while the victim was high and possibly threatening. The story unfolds from the perspective of a visiting magazine writer from New York City, who has befriended the dealer just before the slaying. The New Yorker is sympathetic, but suspicious; he turns his personality profile into a murder investigation, relying heavily on a mischievous transsexual performer and a sexy blond neighbor to navigate his way through the lifestyles of the Rich and Southern. Wackiness ensues, but under dark and foreboding cinematography.

The Movie was interesting, but more as a cultural phenomenon than as art or entertainment. As I said above, Savannah has wrapped a not-small segment of its tourism around this film, yet signs and solicitations never make direct reference to the movie’s subject matter. The scenery is all Savannah (that city looks like no place else!), but the story as told could have been set with different accents in just about any city in the U.S. (or many others around the world). Local celebrities living semi-closeted lives, having to explain to some out-of-stater the way things are done ’round here (and how can a writer from New York City be so naïve about drag queens anyway?), mutual suspicion and derision between the out-of-stater and his smug, amused hosts…

There seemed to be many swaths of rich material, but no hems to fit it all together; more to the point of this blog, where were the race and class issues? The accused makes a point of explaining that he is nouveau-riche, and his lover was clearly working class, but these tidbits don’t seem terribly relevant to the course of the story. Similarly, the two Black characters are vaudevillian for their entertainment value and receive much critical camera time, but neither exerts much direct impact on plot. Perhaps their roles could have been expanded, to redirect the film toward a study not of a murder investigation but of the quirky community around it – but then it would lose what little was credibly left of the Southern Gothic motif. Conversely, the superfluous parts could have been trimmed (I daresay cut) to allow for a more straightforward narrative, but then it would have lost pretty much all entertainment value (Lady Chablis, who convincingly played herself fifteen years after the actual murder, was the best part of the film). I hope The Book was better.

But even if The Book and The Movie are great works (and I’m no expert, plenty of others seem to think so), it still surprised us that Savannah has so wholly embraced them. Sure, Midnight conveyed Savannah’s haunting beauty, but what did it say about the city and its people that can be such a source of pride and draw to Savannah? Uppity and aloof people of wealth gossiping impersonally over alcohol? Nothing unusual there. Thriving but underground gay culture? Not your usual source of pride (well, not in the lower-case, non-parade variety). A place where Black Americans are not defined by their race, but by their skills as drag performers and Voodoo priestesses? Entire classes could be taught on what’s wrong with that… Was it the notion that eccentric Southerners can charm any Northerner into relocating without really trying?

Actually, let’s think about that. Because the trial, the denouement that follows… those were anticlimactic. They’re kind of benchmarks to let you know the story’s almost over. Really, they’re just props, no emotional reaction. And all those lovely, eccentric, one-and-a-half-dimensional characters who stretch the film out well past two hours… most of them are kind of props, too. The mistrust, the culture-clash, the anticipation of twists and turns that never quite materialize… these are the most powerful elements, and the film isn’t over until the narrator tells his new love interest that he’s not going back to New York. But he’s still little more than a prop. That plot I was kind of ragging on? Prop. The gay community and its thin closet, the Black characters (and lack thereof), the rich and the poor – they’re all just props.

The real protagonist of the story is the city of Savannah. Between dialogues, the city calls out to viewers and lures their eyes away from the foreground with beautiful townhouses and creeping Spanish Moss and says, “Look at these crazy people. Only a real city could produce a story like this. Someplace with history and beauty and tragedy behind tired eyes that you’ll never see because I am too gorgeous to let you in on the baggage. I can’t change who I am. I can’t change my history and I’m not sure I would if I could, so I’m just going to put it out there: the eccentric, the ostentatious, the best and the worst of myself, and I dare you to assume that’s all there is to me.” This city puts on a fabulous show of everything it is and everything it wants to be but can’t and celebrates that which it cannot hide with undulating flair.

Savannah is a drag queen.

But not just any drag queen; Savannah is THE drag queen of The Old South. In a good economy, you can’t even tell black from white, happy from sad, any part of any dichotomy from its opposite, because all the polarities are just jumbled up around you and inviting you to savor the blend. As the economic shifts catch up, well, we’ll see who gets invited into the next, more meager concoction, but for now Savannah bears whatever scars it must without trying to hide them, neither flaunting nor obscuring, just getting by on personality and hotness and hoping they will keep you from asking another one of those questions it’s already tired of answering.

On the drive to our next destination, we stopped at a 24-hour Starbucks near Auburn University for warm beverages and people-watching. We couldn’t decide how to feel about the strange blend of gymnasts and debutantes, hipsters and hicks; was it all too illogical or simply our own lives flashing before our eyes? At least it seemed integrated. There’s a lot to be said for how easily it comes to people my age and younger, even here in the South.

Any other day, we would have been talking about that Starbucks for hours, but Savannah had already stolen the show. We would talk about those two days for weeks to come…

Sights: Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens, E. Shaver, Bookseller, River Street, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen

Topics: Speculating on the political leanings of employees and clientele at E. Shaver, cheap toilet paper at expensive hotels, how great it would be to live in Savannah for a month while writing a book, gender, race, class, acceptance vs. tolerance.

Soundtrack: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Martha Wainwright, Placebo, Simon and Garfunkel

We were a bit late heading out of town, but it was okay. There was very little to see in Montgomery.

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