Saturday, November 29, 2008

 

Revealing the Truth

Back when my book was busy getting rejected, I spoke to an editor on the phone who said to me: "I don't know. I think there is something about your culture which makes it difficult for you to reveal anything."

It was one of those moments which I have relived over and over again because all I said back to her was: "That's interesting." Which, it wasn't, really. But she was the editor and she had all the power and I was getting rejected and trying to stay neutral and just take notes in case I needed to do an edit just for her. Her provocation made me just clam up. I think she knew it too because she kept pressing harder and harder and I became quieter and quieter.

I did, in the back of my mind, think that there might be something about her culture which led her to think that over-sharing was somehow truer or better. I guess it never occurred to her that such an attitude might strike other people as vulgar. Seriously, if you are so busy sharing all the time, then what kind of meaning does a confidence take? If I tell my friends something truly personal, it actually means something, and I expect them to keep that confidence. I think secrets have impact because they are just that: secrets. And I don't see how my capacity to reveal anything about myself has anything to do with how well my fiction works.

Now, having said that, yes, "my culture" is notorious for appearing secretive. As such it is going to challenge someone else to read and appreciate people differently. But I have to live in this world in which self-disclosure is normal; I don't see why I shouldn't challenge you to live, for a moment, in a more guarded world where caution is bound up more with manners, and less with fear, and imagine what that might feel like.

I was thinking about all this the other day when I was asked to comment on an essay I'd written, and the process I'd gone through to write it. All I could think about was how I'd struggled with the "what to reveal issue" which, someone pointed out to me, wasn't really all the "revealing" if I didn't discuss what I'd hidden in initial drafts, and revealed later. Surprise. I struggle with self-disclosure. So, yes, the editor was right. When analyzing myself and why I do what I do and discussing it with strangers, "my culture" kicks in and makes me clam up. Does that mean my fiction suffers in the same way?

As a good friend once said to me: "You know how we always say that our fiction is just made up and not based on reality, but in reality, it actually is?" And I nodded. Yes, of course I know. The wonderful thing about writing stories is that you can refract reality through the lens of fiction. We feel like we get to hide.

Recently, a friend was concerned about what would happen when a piece she had written was read for the first time. Would people confuse her work with reality? And I said: "It doesn't matter. You're an artist. You don't have to apologize. Let a piece of art be a piece of art." And I believe that too.

I sometimes think that our confusion over what is "real" in fiction and what is "unreal" is a bit like debating the existence of God; to worry about what is real and what is not is to engage in unhelpful neurosis and take away from what is actually important, which is the reading experience, and the effect it has upon the mind. I suppose it is helpful to know if someone you believe in--be it a preacher or James Frey--is telling you the truth if you require that the author is some kind of embodiment of his aesthetic in order for his work to matter.

But is that the point of art? Do you have to believe in the artist as an exemplary person in order to believe in their writing? I think that's dangerous. Similarly, if you want to debate the existence of God on some kind of sophisticated level--and not a fundamentalist one--do you have to believe that he is a thing, and that he controls everything, and then and only then does the concept of faith really matter? The whole point of having faith is that it is intangible; the whole point of art is that its essence is ineffable. And this, I think, is partly why art is a spiritual thing; you know it when you see it, but it is not easily dissected.

Now, I'm not trying to say that writers shouldn't develop a fully critical tool-kit to determine what works in their writing and what does not. But I don't think that I need to know everything about a writer or a performer in order to know if their art is actually working for me as an audience member.

And yet, I think that the very best fiction is actually trying to get at some kind of truth--in its observations about people, about the world, and how we live in it. It's the fiction that matters on its own and not necessarily the story-behind-the-story. I think once we, as readers, start caring about a work of fiction so much that we want to know about the writer, that's probably because the fiction actually is working, but curious as we might be, it isn't our inherit right as readers and audience members to dig and dig and dig at an author, nor is it the obligation of the author to reveal everything.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

 

EBooks and the Future of Publishing

We break our self-imposed moratorium on blogging for this thought . . .

A few in the publishing world are starting to point out that ebooks and pocket books might be good investments for publishers during these lean times. The suggestion seems sensible, given the ongoing dire news about the state of our economy and the fact that some bookstores have now lost more money than they made in the months before the market's collapse and yesterday's shocker that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has put the kabosh on acquiring any new manuscripts. That shrieking banshee of a wail you hear coming out of New York? It's people in the publishing world realizing that they, too, have been living a life of largesse. In some cases, the people are revolting.

I refuse to believe this is the end of publishing. If I might offer a tiny criticism to my industry, it is that we can sometimes be luddites, unwilling to take on the new. Yes, the book the object is wonderful, but what is wrong with a Kindle or the equivalent? Yes I, too, love to inhale the smell of a book--brand new, musty and old, it doesn't matter--but the most important thing that happens when you read is what is going on inside your mind. Plenty of old-timers thought writers couldn't make the switch from long-hand to computer. I remember being lectured as a youth that a word processor impeded my ability to write essays for school. I'm from a generation that--shock--wrote my first drafts with pen and paper! Does anyone even do this anymore? The kids in their 20s hear this kind of thing and look at me with surprise. I'm old!

Here is what I want to know: what kind of a cost analysis has been done on ebooks? To download a book for the Kindle, I will probably have to pay only $9.99. Is that because it really only costs $9.99, or is it because Amazon has come up with that number to entice the purchase of electronic books, and the number is abnormally low? Or is it abnormally high? Software people do that sometimes. I'm not clear what's the case and I'd like to know, and so should the rest of the industry.

Second, when the paperback version of a book is released, it seems almost de rigeur at this point to include questions for discussion "for the book club." In some instances, the paperback includes a little interview from the writer. When video games are released as a "special collector's edition," they often come with expansion packs. Sometimes you can even buy the expansion pack alone, though you don't get the special gold foiled packaging of the actual special edition. But still. DVDs of television shows have figured out this trick. I remember listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and hearing the TV guy wax rhapsodic about the extras contained on DVDs for the Sopranos. I went off and joined Netflix just so I could understand what he was talking about.

In publishing, the debate still seems to be whether or not ebooks are viable. I say, the kids are already doing it in Japan, and the kids in this country are already reading documents on their handhelds. Barack Obama, anyone? I don't think the right question, therefore, is if we should use ebooks. I think the correct question is how we use them.

What special content can the electronic book have, that no other book can have? What the heck is wrong with some hyperlinks at the end of a manuscript? For my essay on the Japanese Crematorium, I included a page on my blog with pictures of the places and people that inspired me to write. Why can't an ebook do something similar? Why can't it come with book trailers and interviews and clippings of reviews at the end? Why can't it be "upgraded" with extras should the reader decide he likes the new book? Why shouldn't an ebook include an alert to your email box for when the author is doing a reading in your area? Why not include the author's email--or the agent's equivalent--if the reader has a question? I believe the marketing people refer to this kind of thing as an "opt in," if I remember from my days at work in the corporate world. Why doesn't the purchase of an ebook include an automatic opt in for additional services? The more attuned to the internet a writer is, the more she is going to figure out what to include in that opt in. I can see this working in particular for genre books, which have a built in audience with a dedicated online presence. But what's wrong with the literary folks getting on the bandwagon too?

I think the WRONG question to ask is whether or not books will translate to the digital medium. I think the RIGHT question to ask is how to make it worthwhile to the consumer. Right now, a handful of writers are struggling like mad to figure out how to use the internet to reach their audiences. We generate content for free that is relevant to our books. There ought to be a way for publishers to use this and, in some cases, monetize it.

Chaos breeds opportunity. Last night, my brilliant banker friend--one of the few good and ethical bankers--called aglow because she'd received yet another offer from someone in her industry desperate to hire her because she alone seems able to understand and navigate these scary economic times. There will be those in the book world who do the same.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

 

Blogging

Saturday I had the pleasure of a moderating a panel at the New School hosted by CLMP with Ed Park, Luc Sante, Alex Chee and Emily Gould. They were smart, so the conversation we had about books and blogging was naturally interesting. And now that it's over, I've noticed that none of us has blogged. Maybe it's the holidays, or maybe it's something else.

In my case, our conversation made me think again about why I am blogging and what I am actually trying to accomplish here, a question for which I have no easy answer.

I started blogging for Japundit which, a few years ago, had a pretty committed aim and a dedicated group of posters. It was fun. We could debate issues that don't get much mainstream media press coverage (until we had discussed them enough in the blogosphere that the mainstream media decided to copy us). I could write about Miss Japan and her rise to Miss Universe and how her win was engineered by a western woman determined to refashion the Japanese aesthetic into something more appealing to westerners, and how this irritated the Japanese. I could think about Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku girls and point out that while the quiet miming of the her backup dancers was seen by some in the west as akin to blackface, the Japanese were generally less offended, and more bemused. Etc. And, frankly, I learned a lot, and met some lovely people.

The site has changed now, and no longer really requires my posts. The readers seemed to change too. Or maybe it was just the run up to the election that made participants particularly tense. It seemed to me that more and more comments and posts that were too political in nature were being deleted and I, who don't consider myself particularly politically active, was bothered. How does one really draw the line between a discussion of a some current event--like political correctness which is an arguably western subject--and politics? And wasn't the internet supposed to be a place where we could discuss what we wanted without impunity? I don't really like tense situations, and yet through discussion, sometimes people are led to understand something new about themselves, and I place myself in this category. Western girl that I mostly am, I prefer and am accustomed to openness.

Then my father passed away this summer, and I agonized over how to post. I took down half of the posts I wrote because they were too personal, and too angry. Sometimes I tried to write about my attempts to find solace in gardening, which for some reason elicited a number of emails. Other times I wrote angry rants about people I'd better not mention here, and these I took down. The angry rants, by the way, more accurately depicted my mental state at the time.

A couple of months ago, someone said to me, "It's been interesting watching you on your blog as you work through the grief. Suddenly there was a post about shoes." Translation: I was better!

This made me think of something a friend known for her blogging once said to me; people often feel that by reading her blog, they are keeping up with her life. Well, it's true in a way, but only up to a point. Yes, my blog will tell you what I am thinking or what I thought was blog worthy. But the truth is that I'm not really comfortable talking about myself--it's why I've barely written any essays and have stuck to fiction. I'd much rather tell you what I am thinking about something else. I'm much better at just making stuff up. In other words, no, the blog is not my attempt to be friends with everyone, and reading it is not really a way to keep up with me and what is really going on.

So, what am I doing? What am I going to do? I'm no longer as fascinated by the whole "issues about Asia not being explored by the mainstream media" as I once was. I am not able to be some performance artist, wringing out the details of my personal life to entertain readers. There are a lot of other blogs out there covering books and writing and things pertaining to the literary world, and written by people with students and who are naturally more inclined to want to be nurturing of writers at all stages of their craft. I do not have a natural "internet voice," which is sardonic and city and youthful. What, I wonder, is an editor going to think looking at this blog? My "real writing" isn't in this voice at all. And, no, reading my blog isn't a substitution for real friendship. So, what am I doing?

I don't know. So I think that for the time being, I'm going to take a break. It's the holidays. I have cookies to bake and my special eggs to chase down to make the cookies with. I have to bake three pies for Thursday. I am trying to finish knitting a bunch of handmade socks--spoiler--that will be my gift of choice this year for special friends. Cookies and socks. I have some articles to write. And maybe after the New Year, I'll have figured out what I'm trying to do, and it may be that nothing changes, and I'll limp along with this lack of thematic focus. Or it may be that I suddenly find a theme around which to organize all these posts. I don't know.

Until then, be well.

Friday, November 21, 2008

 

Creepy Advertising



I picked up my mail yesterday and got all excited when I saw a hand-addressed envelope. Someone had sent me a letter! Only, there was no return address. When I opened up the envelope, I found this inside: a post it note fixed to a sheet of Newspaper advertising cheap Nissan cars. The post it note was signed "J."

I don't know any "J"s. Any possible J's I know would send me a text or an email. I am not in the market for a car. So who had my address? Why was getting this newspaper clipping? Paranoid person that I can be, I checked my mailbox for white powder. I thought about keeping the newspaper article as "evidence." I've finally just decided to throw it away, but I am still creeped out by the whole thing.

 

This Is a Purse



The city is full of sad people. Eavesdrop on conversations between men in black and the conversation is always the same: the market sucks, the men have lost wealth, it's important to stay positive, the wife is not happy.

And no one is shopping. You've probably heard by now that luxury goods in high end stores are going straight to the 40% off rack. And it's true! I went into Bloomingdale's out of curiosity and everything was on sale. The staff looked demoralized. I could paw through Jean Paul Gaultier and not look out of place. No one stopped me. It was kind of liberating.

Earlier this week I was in the garment district, shopping with my agent, when I spied what looked like a herd of small stuffed animal dogs in the window of a boutique. "Look!" I pointed. She grabbed my arm and said, "We have to go in there. You don't know what those are, do you?" She had been to some party at Bloomingdales where someone--some mover and shaker--had been carrying a mini-dachshund purse on her arm. That's right. These are handbags.



They are made in America and come with a little kennel, which you can see above. The salesperson came over to talk to me while I was taking photos. He was afraid I'd taken a picture of the price (because his dogs are on sale and, well, I think they aren't supposed to be). He became animated. He showed me how the legs and the tail all move. The dog can sit down. The bottom of one paw has rhinestones. You can take the handle off of the dog and just use it as a toy which you might want to do if you are 8 years old, want a dog, but aren't allowed to have one.

It was strange watching him go through his pitch. I felt like we were pretending to be in another time--one not so long ago in which a really well made sitting-dog-hand-bag-toy would have been a sure fire hit. We were still people who could appreciate a well made luxury item, but we no longer live in that world. It was as though we were museum curators, or aliens visiting the ruin of some destroyed civilization, marveling at what the extinct species had created. It was eerie.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

 

Norton Anthology

I just learned that Norton is going to include my essay on the Japanese crematorium in an anthology of Creative Nonfiction and I am, of course, incredibly excited.

I had a conversation with my agent a few months ago where she tried to explain to me that publishing means a book or an essay can continue well past the print date--it has a life of its own. The truth is, I never completely believed in this. And certainly I've never tried to write for immortality. I'm too accustomed to no one paying all that much attention to me. But knowing that my essay is going to be reprinted sort of proves my agent's point; an essay or a book can continue on, even after the author has moved on to other things. I'm just sort of stunned that this would happen to me too, though I am, of course, incredibly happy about it, and very grateful.

 

The Debt Lifestyle

Some trends I don't want to miss. I completely fell in love with the internet when it first arrived, and wanted to work in the industry, which I got to do in the late 90s. I'm glad. I remember thinking: I don't want to get old and tell my grandchildren I wasn't "there."

I did not get rich. Lots of my friends--many of whom did not work in information technology--sort of did. I can't really tell. But they would say things like: "I can't live off of $70,000 a year!" when in the company of working musicians (translate: that was clumsy) or "It is impossible to live in New York City on $250,000 a year!" which I thought was really clumsy.

And now here we are, a nation in debt. This morning I listened to a program on how to prepare "Depression Era Food." Suddenly we are going to become a nation that saves bacon fat, ie, we will learn to do our own cooking. Maybe we will even learn to clean our own houses! Or hem our own pants!

Last night I went to the opera to see the new production of the Damnation of Faust because I was curious about the video screen projection props and the music, with which I am not terribly familiar. I'll save my thoughts on the opera for a later date, because what I really want to say is that I was in standing room, with my binoculars. I used to go to standing room all the time when I was college, and often went alone. This didn't bother me. In college, I thought it was kind of a game. I usually ended up with a seat anyway, and I even met and made a life long friend. My parents met in standing room. I am and was unembarrassed by standing room. Plus, if a production sucked--as it did when the Met put on this ridiculous Freudian interpretation of Lucia di Lammermoor in which chorus members sang while gripping red poles (the audience booed)--I could leave and not worry about how much I had paid for my ticket.

But. I did wonder, as a student, what it would be like to show up at the Met with my season tickets and my fancy coat and SIT DOWN. Only, there I was last night, still in standing room.

So what in MY life is going to change now that the recession is on? Am I going to start cooking Depression food? It seems to me that I have been doing just that for years, and that this is how writers and artists have always lived. I guess I could completely give up standing room and going to the opera all together. I could give up buying books. I could give up taking dance class. But how much would I really save? It's not like I have a golf club membership, or a nanny, or a housekeeper, or an expensive gas guzzling car, or any of these things that are supposedly the hallmarks of a successful lifestyle.

And as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that I have completely missed the economic boom that everyone has been enjoying for the past 15 years (okay, not everyone. I know our middle class is dwindling). I have completely missed driving up my credit card debt. I have also completely missed making any money, but I also seem to have missed the emotional highs that would come from having lived on credit.

I do worry. The person who struggled to live off of 250k a year is going to lose some money this year, but she's also probably going to be okay because, well, she has that much more of a cushion. What happens to the rest of us who have always been buying our clothes on sale and killing our own bath tub scum? We don't have too much of a distance to fall. Such, I suppose, is the price to pay for choosing to live a creative life over a material one (and not that I'm complaining, mind you, because I do have a lot more than many people and am conscious of this).

I had a strange experience a few years ago when I worked on a freelance project for a guy who wanted to write a book (which never got off the ground). He had been some high level exec who had lost his job and was going through an existential crisis. He lived in a wealthy community just outside of New York City and said: "My wife doesn't care what I do, as long as we keep the lifestyle." I thought, how fascinating! I've heard about people like you and your wife! I've read about people like you and seen you on TV. And here you are, actually real, actually trying to find another way to live your life, while your wife worries about the country club membership. How amusing.

Anyway, there was this brief period where he wanted to know how I shopped. He wanted to try to buy clothes at my thrift store, and he did. He was incredibly proud of his thrift store purchases. I was worried about the shirts he chose. The collar was frayed. "No, I like that," he said. It was like some kind of badge of honor for him. He was really getting into this alternative lifestyle thing. And while I have no problem with buying things from thrift stores, I usually want to find something that is either 1) unique or 2) looks brand new. I am not interested in showing off my alternative lifestyle purchases. I shop the way I do because I don't think it makes sense to walk into a department store and pay full price. Like, ooh look at me! I'm a sucker for full price! I don't see the point.

He was briefly interested in writing. He thought it would be fascinating to dig into himself and express what he had to say. He thought it would be nice to read a lot of books and get all deep. As long as his wife could maintain her lifestyle.

And then, predictably, he got a job offer, he was able to afford normal shirts again, and the fascination with an alternative lifestyle came to an end. What he thought of as a fascinating "alternative," I simply think of as practical.

This much I do know; the minute the economy turns around, Depression Era cooking will end as a trend and everyone will go back to eating out in restaurants that serve truffle salt or whatever else. And this self-flagellation will end and clothes will once again be too expensive . . . and food will be cheap.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

 

Final Edit (Again)

So, once again I have turned in what I think is the final edit on my manuscript. Only this time, the editor seems to agree. We just had lunch and it was one of those fun conversations where you realize that you are a writer because someone is asking you questions about characters you have created, and is worried about them and wondering about them and you think, "Oh, right. They're alive now."

It's a neat feeling.

On the creative end, I think I knew that this was the final edit when I realized how organic the draft had become. Organic. This is a word that writing types use a lot. But what does it mean?

In my case, it meant that when I changed a section here or there, it impacted the entire manuscript. Usually when we think of edits (or when I think of edits), I think of entire rewrites. Edit implies to me that the entire work isn't bright enough or clear enough of vivid enough. But toward the end of my editing, a curious thing happened. If I changed chapter 13, chapter 14 suddenly became more emotional. When I added a small scene in chapter 3, chapter 6 suddenly took on more meaning. I think this is what people mean when they say that a manuscript is suddenly organic--things are deeply interconnected so that by changing one thing, everything else reverberates more. It's a humbling thing to witness and I had the strange feeling that what I had created no longer had anything to do with me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

 

James Bond



Above is Gordon's James Bond martini.

I find myself in the unusual position of having seen a movie before it has been released to the general public. And I think, unlike some sites, I'm not going to give my general impressions of the film, since I was invited under interesting circumstances, and thanks to the generosity of some recent acquaintances.

But let me say this. Home theaters are the way to see movies. The seats are comfortable. The audience well behaved. May I someday have my own home theater. If the economy continues on the way it has, a flat screen TV is in my future. That will be a start.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

 

View from My Window




I'm going to roast a chicken this evening, and perhaps break out a special bottle of wine. It's warm, for fall, and that is making the transition to winter feel almost gentle. Went to see Garth Fagan last night, and am more intrigued than ever to go watch The Lion King, which Fagan choreographed. I'm also thinking, after watching all that athletic virtuosity, of how I need to return to dance. My body is permanently shaped like a young fern and I need some disciplined exercise to uncurl after all the hours spent in front of my computer.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

 

Amazing Waterfall in Fukuoka, Japan



You'll start to recognize characters at about 0:18. (Thanks, Aunt Jane!)

Friday, November 07, 2008

 

Finishing Touches and Seeking Cover Art



I've been working on the finishing touches of my manuscript (which, yes, I turned in, but came back to me again), and I'm actually grateful to have had the chance to reenter the world I created. It's fun.

There's early talk of cover art, and on a whim, I poked around on the internet to see what I might find. A search yielded the photo above, from the New York Times, along with an article on natural hot springs in the north of Japan.



There are only a few people who have read my novel, but those who have know that the far north of Japan and its snowy landscape and mineral baths play a key role.

A slide show accompanies
the article, with shots that to me look as though they could have come straight out of my book. Have a look. The model is Anne Watanabe, daughter of Ken Watanabe who you might remember from Memoirs of a Geisha (the movie) and Batman Begins.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

 

Election Party



Last night, friend Kurt hosted a "Swing State" party. He prepared Virginia ham, Colorado beer, New Mexico salsa, key lime pie and other tasty treats. I was in a strange mood all day, and the party felt surreal, but I knew it was going to be a momentous evening, and I wanted to make sure I was with friends, and in the heart of New York City.



In preparation, I took my iPhone and its power chord, and a laptop and ITS power chord. This seemed like overkill at first, but I was pleased to see people on my computer when I came back from a 45 minute break. It really is the case that the internet supplements what we see on TV.

As soon as Obama's win was confirmed, there was a roar on the streets that didn't stop. I didn't get to sleep until 3AM. People cried, including yours truly. I was texting, emailing and Twittering with friends across the country and the globe, as we all celebrated the moment together. (For the skeptics, it's moments like this that make email and the internet so important).

The street parties ran until dawn. As we walked, we ran into groups of people who would spontaneously cheer and high five each other. I wonder how many romances were born last night? I saw a man driving around and around the streets, honking the car of his horn in 3 short busts. He was black. Eventually I realized he was trying to say: "Yes we can," via his car. So we shouted to him, and he honked back and waved, and then went on to share the moment with someone else. People drove by in cars waving Obama signs out of the windows. Happy cab drivers shepherded their fares while honking. Police would whiz by, stare down groups of people who would simply scream and shout happily back. The cops would go away. I have never, ever seen a street party in New York city like this and it was wonderful. It feels a bit like New Year's day.



It was a good evening. I only regret that I was not registered to vote in California this year, so I could add my voice to the chorus of "Nos" voting against Proposition 8, whose passage I find strange, and punishing to a group of people who have contributed so much to our culture. It makes no sense. But after last night, I have faith that eventually Americans will do right by their gay brothers and sisters, and the right kind of change will come about. It will simply take time.

(Edited to add: apologies for the listless quality of my writing. I'm absolutely exhausted today).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

 

EdAss Unmasked

On this glorious morning, I'd like to say a few things about my friend Moonrat, otherwise known as the (former) EditorialAss.

I know who s/he is. IRL, I mean. And, no, I won't disclose his/her identity because at this point I consider Moonrat a friend, and friends don't out each other like that.

However, the fact that I know who Ed Ass is does mean that I have a little bit of extra insight into the posts you see. And here is what I have to say: Moonrat in person is pretty much Moonrat online. That is to say, Moonrat cares passionately about books and writers. The EdAss wants you to have as much information as possible to write the best books that you can--because Moonrat wants to read the best books. EdAss does a lot (and I mean A LOT) of work for which Moonie isn't paid, and that you don't read about on the blog, and this is just because books and writing in the Moonie universe are THAT important.

Case in point. Someone wanted to know how many books you would need to sell to have a "bestseller." Moonie told you the truth. I've had rough patches with my career; Moonie gives me advice for free. A newish writer friend of mine was trying to figure out which agent to sign with (actually, this has happened a few times) and Moonie told me the unvarnished truth about all the candidates. The only reason why the EdAss shares this kind of information is to be a good friend, and to promote good books and writing.

I would like to say even more, but this not using he/her pronoun thing is killing me, and I'm terrible at funny haikus. So. Moonrat, I'm so glad that you are my friend and I thank you enormously for the many things you have done for writers. I am so proud of your conviction--even when books break your heart--and have tremendous faith in your ability to continue contributing to the healthy side of publishing.

 

Voting: NYC



Voting in the part of New York where I live is always moving because the crowd is so diverse. I saw plenty of elderly folks, young hipsters and immigrants. I saw one woman standing in line holding her passport, though she probably didn't need the ID. A group of three Latino immigrants giggled all the way through the process and I wondered if they were here for the first time. It's serious, important business for them and a good reminder that it is not a right to be taken lightly. In my voting district, there is an absence of cynicism, which I find refreshing.



There was a group of well dressed and very serious looking young Asian kids outside with a clipboard. They didn't approach me, but I overheard them explaining to other (pure) Asians that they were there to make sure that Asian immigrant voters weren't disenfranchised.



I find the process of voting itself to always be a little nerve-wracking. What if I make a mistake? But honestly, the instructions and the machinery are simply. I love these old mechanical levers--I've yet to ever use an electronic polling booth.



And now I will go through the rest of this busy day and wait. And later, will be with friends, eyes glued to the television screen as I hit "refresh" on my iPhone every few seconds.

 

Election Morning




There isn't a person I spoke to/heard from/Twittered with yesterday who wasn't jittery about the election. I said to more than a few people that waiting for to vote--and getting through Monday--felt an awful lot like waiting to vomit. No one could concentrate. I ended up cleaning the entire apartment. In the afternoon, I was hammered by emails from friends telling me that Obama's grandmother had died. Everyone would like the story of the election to be over, and at the same time, everyone is hanging on to every twist and turn the story might take.

Watching politics in America can be fascinating--and grueling, like the culture itself. The money spent has been unprecedented. Some would say excessive. When an election is on in the US, it is nearly impossible to miss the heavy campaigning that permeates absolutely every possible media outlet. As in all things we do relentlessly and earnestly, Americans throw everything into campaigning. Relationships fray. Last election, I l chose to terminate a few.



Having such an international family means that I am acutely aware of how the US is viewed. It makes my relationships even more complex. A sensitive person by nature, I often feel acute pressure to speak for and represent my country, which is often irritating when I'd like to be taken as an individual. When Bush won in 2004, a friend in the UK sent me a JPEG of the cover of the Daily Mirror. I was livid. Why pour salt in a wound when you know a friend is grieving?

I can't begin to express how much I miss my father this morning. For every ugly thing that has happened at the hands of the US government in the past 8 years, I could always look to my father as representing the best of America. He loved and believed in the very best of what we have to offer, and wasn't embarrassed to say so. He was white, and yet I realize now, perfectly at ease around people of color. He was bilingual, he was traveled, he was cultured, he was witty and he was kind.



In my immediate family, he was also pretty much the only American. As "American" landmarks--elections, holidays--unfold, I realize how much I miss him because he was the one who taught me to appreciate these things. We talked on the phone obsessively about our votes for the primary. He used to call me nearly every day to complain about George Bush and it got to the point that I bought him a "Last Day in Office" ballcap to wear. He supported Obama. And he's not here today.

I remember the very first time I voted. He took me to the polling station in Carmel--I think we walked--and he proudly told me that since he was registered as a Democrat, we would vote on the "left" side of the polling booth, which was not as popular as the "right side" which the Republicans frequent. He did not mind doing things that were "not popular," and smiled extra hard at the lady in charge of our polling station lest she feel lonely for being unpopular herself. I got an "I Voted" sticker. I wore it for years until an ex boyfriend told me it looked lame. My father and I stayed up at night, watching television, waiting for the outcome of the election. "They don't always wait for us (California)," he said, "but it's very important that you always vote." That was 1992. In 1996, I was living in the San Francisco Bay area, but still registered at home so I would be able to vote with him. And off we went again. My father never missed an election.

Today, I don't have my one, American family member to talk to about the election. It makes the responsibility feel even more grave, somehow. "Don't forget to vote," said my husband before going off to work. As if. I'm voting for both of us. And for my mother, too, and also for my father. And all the Japanese and Scots who are watching.

Monday, November 03, 2008

 

Nostalgia



I am having this "post graduation--first time I ever voted--Wiz trip to the UK--visiting London to see Les Miz" nostalgic feeling as we count down the last hours before election day. The above will make no sense to some of you and I'm cool with that. Some of you will have seen this video. For others, have fun watching.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

 

Editing is Not the Only Marathon



My husband introduced me to the wonders of the New York City marathon, which he's run and completed twice. Despite a nagging cold, we made it out for a couple of hours to watch the runners from our favorite viewing point deep in Queens. By the time we got there, the early racers were speeding by.



Then it was on to the elite women, with Paula Radcliffe in the lead, a fact that made us very emotional.



These two friends came to join us in our little patch of sunshine. They were adamant cheerers. The girl was so emotional she was crying and her tears were all over her shirt. I taught them out to say "Gambare!" in Japanese when a young man in a wheelchair with Japanese flag afixed to the back went speeding by. He was startled to see us screaming at him, but waved, and I was so excited, I forgot to take his photo.



Along came the gazelles, the elite men. Toward the back is a man with a yellow shirt and black arm warmers (a trend this year). He is Marilson Gomes de Santos from Brazil and went on to pass the projected winner, who is in front, to win big.



And then came the mortals who, as you can see, are sometimes more amazing than the elites.



There were plenty of Obama runners, statues of liberty and one Marilyn Monroe.



Just what every marathon racer needs: to be greeted by a grunge band pounding out Michael Jackson's "Thriller."



We felt very indulgent just going home, after watching people putting out so much effort. We ate Indian food at an extraordinary new and delicious restaurant (Mehfil--76-05 37th Ave), then proceeded to have a nice long nap. Lazy.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

 

Butoh: In Time for Halloween



In college, my friend Liz wrote her East Asian Languages and Civilizations thesis on Butoh, a post-war theatrical expression developed in Japan. I'd never heard of it until she began to analyze its roots, relating Butoh to the classical Japanese theater of Noh, with its own stylized and slowly perfected series of movements. As she told me about Butoh, I realized that I'd seen photos in Japan of people painted in white, bearing expressions of deep pain, in advertisements. I'd "seen" Butoh; it was not something my mother and I ever went to see live.

Butoh is a modern performance art form, reflecting the intense change (and pain) Japan underwent after the war and two nuclear bombs. As this site explains of Butoh's founders, Hijikata and Ohno (still alive at 102!):

Hijikata . . . wanted to find a form of expression that was purely Japanese, and one that allowed the body to "speak" for itself, thru unconscious improvised movement . . . Butoh loosely translated means stomp dance, or earth dance. Hijikata believed that by distorting the body, and by moving slowly on bent legs he could get away from the traditional idea of the beautiful body, and return to a more organic natural beauty. The beauty of an old woman bent against a sharp wind, as she struggles home with a basket of rice on her back. Or the beauty of a lone child splashing about in a mud puddle - this was the natural movement Hijikata wanted to explore.


Viewing Butoh, like Noh, takes a trained eye. There are not the quick pyrotechnics we've increasingly become accustomed to in performance. An article in the New York Times gives this advice.

People tend to think of Butoh in terms of aesthetic markers: white body paint, shaved heads, slow movement gained through intense muscular control, and a way of manipulating the body that is at once beautiful and grotesque, tragic and absurd. Influenced by German Expressionism, it tends to be imagistic rather than narrative. But while these elements often appear, defining Butoh in stylistic terms is dangerous. There is the beautiful, highly stylized theatricality of Sankai Juku, or the mad kineticism of Mr. Kasai, or the creaturely abstractions of Yumiko Yoshioka. Like contemporary American dance, Butoh is no one thing, but it always has, at its center, a fragile transformative spark. You can’t always describe it, but you know it when you see it, and you know when it’s missing.


And now that you have been warned, here's a snippet of Butoh performance, by one of the originators of the form.



You can compare this to Noh theater (which I love) and which uses masks--often white--to portray characters. Other emotions rely on gesture.



Of course, it's simplistic to use two little videos to show how two art forms are related to each other, but for the sake of a blog post, I hope you can see some relationship. I think both art forms require us to be patient, and to watch without modern eyes, and to concentrate on details of movement. Meditation in many ways asks us to do the same thing, and an enlightened person--which I definitely don't claim to be--would see a relationship between meditating and experiencing Noh and Butoh.

Modern Butoh can also be more vigorous, and take place outside of a theater or clearly defined ritual space. I like this idea that dance and performance can take place anywhere, that we don't need to clearly define one place for viewing the sacred, and others as only for the mundane.



I bring all this up because my husband bought me a series of tickets to the Joyce Theater this year and our first visit included a trip to see Eiko and Koma, two Japanese born dancers now living in New York. When their program opened, we saw two naked bodies painted in white, posing upside down against a mesh fence. Slowly, tortuously, they coiled and uncoiled into different positions, all intended to display a sense of Hunger, the name of their program. I was able to find this snippet on Youtube, which also displays two proteges from Cambodia, Peace and Charion. (Eiko and Koma don't appear till about 5 min. in).



Eiko and Koma were on "full project" all the time. At all times, I felt their pain. I kept thinking that both were wearing masks, but in fact their faces were simply as adept at conveying emotion as their gnarled feet. Eiko appeared to perpetually be on the verge of dying. Their young proteges were uncomfortably lithe and healthy and fleshy in contrast.

What to make of this slow and painful performance. "I think," I said to my husband, "that was Butoh." We had intended to have dinner after the show, but left feeling anything but hungry. I certainly did not want any rice. We opted for fish and after about twenty minutes of sitting in the cheerful restaurant, discovered that we were hungry after all. The performance had simply affected our appetites. I had a glass of wine. I began to cheer up. Food tasted very, very good. It was a strange experience to leave the theater feeling so hollow to feeling full and to appreciating the color and light of the city.

Is this a theatrical experience I would want to repeat? Did I get it? I'm still thinking. I don't doubt that the performers are wholly unique and that, while uncomfortable, I was very moved by what I saw. Here is what a reviewer said.
The key to a successful Eiko & Koma experience lies in utter concentration. Not theirs, but yours.


Right. This art is hard. Butoh is not like Blue Man Group.

I'm thinking I can probably be convinced to watch again.

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