Category Archives: Art

The Last Book I Loved: The Flamethrowers

flameThese are my top five phrases from Rachel Kushner’s strangely compelling, difficult-to-describe, careening novel The Flamethrowers:

“We were a project, a becoming, a set of plans”

“In the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place”

“The important matter of small-town hair”

“Big mustaches, faces barbecued by sun and wind, suspenders framing regal paunches”

“Only a killjoy would claim neon wasn’t beautiful”

Wait, I know the word to describe Flamethrowers: incomparable, literally. I cannot compare it to anything I have ever read before. Sometimes I do a recipe-style breakdown of books–3 parts this, 1 part that, etc– but not with this one. It is no parts anything else, all parts itself. Most books I love occupy familiar space. I love them because they latch on to emotional pressure points, amplifying feelings I already have with new language and insight. SisterlandCurtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, is an example of that kind of book, that lights up pathways in my brain that I like to have lit up.

The Flamethrowers is something else entirely, mapping out new paths altogether, crafting new brain tissue out of matter that it roped in with its bizarre and unheard of magnetic force. It doesn’t fit into any of the rubrics I normally use, and for that, I loved it.

What is it about? Art? Love? Sex? Rebellion? Complacency? Mostly set in the 70s, but dipping into the past to add a little depth here and there, Flamethrowers follows an unnamed young woman (we only know her as “Reno,” so called because that’s where she’s from) who races motorcycles, falls unsuspiciously in love, works as a “China Girl” in a film studio, aspires to artistic innovation, and trips into a life more adventurous and luxurious than she really is equipped to navigate.

And holy hell, Kushner can do phenomenal things with words. I could have picked hundreds of phrases instead of the ones above that have lodged themselves under my ribs.

I also love the way she thinks; read her New Yorker profile. 

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: Orphan Master’s Son

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

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What will assuredly not be last thoughts on Beyonce

Last week I wrote about my confusion and discomfort with the “Anna Mae” reference in Beyonce’s terrifically catchy and hot-as-hell song “Drunk in Love.” A few commenters wrote some insightful things and I read a few more essays and collectively we have assembled a few other theories. Two, in particular, we should add to the list:

The duh-this-is-about-oral-sex argument: In my last post, I was too overwhelmed by the violence of the reference (it’s taken from the Tina Turner biopic about Ike’s abuse) to observe the super obvious oral sex reference. Although some have pointed out that he’s the one telling her to “eat the cake” if you watch the video, you’ll catch Bey in the background mouthing the direction herself. Though this still raises some problematic conflations of sexual violence and sexual pleasure… well, that shit is nothing if not complicated.

The not-all-hip-hop-is-biographical,-you-idiot reminder: I’m just going to start with a great comment:

“I would say with Rap/Hip-Hop, we tend to assume that artists are depicting themselves, or who they would like to be (exaggerations of themselves). But I would argue this is not always the case, even with Rap/Hip-Hop, and it could maybe not be the case with Drunk in Love. 

She’s totally right. I think I mistakenly assumed some degree of biographical integrity, which is a ridiculous place to begin when you’re parsing lyrics. There was a great interview on NPR the other day about prosecutors using lyrics to try to sway juries into guilty verdicts when rappers are accused of crimes. See? He rapped about murder, so he obviously committed one…

The interviewed expert on the show pointed out that the credit we give other artists to be able to sing non-biographical lyrics and emote non-biographical emotions we don’t extend to hip-hop and rap artists. As he pointed out, we don’t assume that Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

If we then do extend the same courtesy to rap artists, it’s possible to read “Drunk in Love” as a depiction (not an endorsement) of a certain kind of relationship. The commenter above continued:

Is Beyonce singing about herself here, or as a character who is experiencing a brand new, passionate kind of love? If Beyonce is playing the woman who is drunk in love, Jay Z, likewise, could be playing the man who equally drunk in love, not necessarily playing himself. And unfortunately, there are men out there for whom passion and violence are intertwined, like Ike Turner.

In case you missed it, here’s Bey and Jay’s Grammy performance of it:

Got any more theories to add to the list?

Related Post: Beyonce at the Superbowl

Related Post: Guest post, the problem with “Blurred Lines”

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History Pockets – The House of Dance and Feathers

The first time I was aware of the Mardi Gras Indians was the second episode of Treme when Clarke Peters emerges from a waterlogged bar to petition his neighbor for help. He is dressed like this:

TOUT_Clarke Peters, Paul Schiraldi_2

I honestly thought it was some HBO magical realism shit, a dream sequence, perhaps, because it didn’t seem possible that black men of New Orleans actually don epic suits of beads and feathers and parade and dance through the streets of the Crescent City. Wouldn’t I have heard about it if they did? I’m pretty well-read, I took a bunch of African-American studies classes in college, I know some stuff….

Apparently not. Between the white privilege bubble and the we-only-care-about-what’s-north-of-the-Mason-Dixon bubble, the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians managed to fall through the cracks of my liberal arts education, despite majoring in what my mother semi-jokingly referred to “oppression studies.”

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Beadwork from Mardi Gras Indian suits

The Mardi Gras Indians have been masking in New Orleans for over a century. The origins are rather hazy, but the oral history passed down suggests that the first masking tribes were honoring the Native Americans who resisted the European infiltration of New Orleans and assisted escaping slaves. Every year, hundreds of black New Orleans men and boys spend 11 months sewing by hand phenomenally elaborate beaded and feathered suits. On Mardi Gras, they parade through the city in tribes, battling each other with song and dance and prettiness.

I spent this past weekend in New Orleans and between all the fried things I ate (including a truly outstanding crawfish beignet) we visited the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum created by Ronald Lewis (featured in Dan Baum’s Nine Liveswhich you should read) to preserve the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. 

In the small trailer in the Lower Ninth that Lewis has packed with beadwork, photos, newspaper clippings, and feathered pieces, I was struck by how easy it would have been to go about my entire life and never be aware of the Mardi Gras Indians. What a fascinating and important subculture I would have missed learning about! What beautiful artwork I would have missed seeing! What stories I would have missed hearing!

Holding up a piece of beadwork in the House of Dance and Feathers

Holding up a piece of beadwork in the House of Dance and Feathers

From there, I started wondering about all of the other little hidden pockets of history and culture that I will likely never encounter. It seems safe to assume that New Orleans, though unique in oh-so-many ways is not the only city to house bands or tribes or communities of people doing surprising and surprisingly delightful art and work.

There must be dozens of subcultures and cultural institutions in Chicago that in seven years I’ve never even heard of. There are huge swaths of this city that I’ve never set foot in. I left the House of Dance and Feathers wondering how to go about exploring my own city better. What do you think? How do you find, learn about, and appreciate unique and little-known cultures in your city?

P.S. Want more on Ronald Lewis, Mardi Gras Indians, and The House of Dance and Feathers? Read Kim Green’s post over at The Greenery

Related Post: Many of the untold stories in history of ladies. I know, you’re shocked!

Related Post: How have I never seen Thelma and Louise? 

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Vagina Love!

Sorry for the AWOL-ness of late. Busy busy with travel and “real” work and side projects.

What better way to celebrate a return to the blog than with some quality vagina-time?  A long time ago, I wrote an essay about why oral sex was so often a one-directional exercise and many of the respondees to my survey wrote about feeling like their vaginas were ugly, unclean, or “too private.” How something that you use to have sex with is too private for the person you’re having sex with is kind of beyond me, but I allow that feelings towards one’s genitalia can get complicated.

Anyway, those responses made me sad, because the idea of folks missing out on pleasure and intimacy out of vagina-shame seems like such a waste. Apparently, I am not alone in these feelings. Three cool vagina-friendly things for you to peruse this week. Probably not the safest for work, but I don’t know what your work is like, so use your judgment:

1. Vagina Posters: Debbie Herbenick, sex educator and all-around fan of vaginas is launching a Kickstarter to fund her beautiful poster series What Do You  Like About Your Vulva and Vagina. Go support her and her team and also get postcards or posters as a thank you gift!

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2. Porn Sex vs. Real Sex: Production company Kornhaber Brown made this little video cleverly replacing genitalia with genitalia-shaped food to illustrate the differences between porn sex and real sex. Given that I am a porn fan and that I also don’t think porn is going anywhere even if I weren’t, I like content that contextualizes porn as performance and helps create boundaries between the sex that most people have and the sex that porn stars have.

3. Female Reproductive Organ posters: I found this in a secondhand store in Provincetown, MA, this past weekend. It’s a poster about menstruation and reproduction that was made by Tampax to hang in doctors’ officees. I loved it instantly but I left the store without buying it. Half an hour later, I made my group return so I could make it mine. It shall hang in the bathroom:

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Related Post: My favorite body-positive pornographic tumblr (NSFW)

Related Post: Do you find my breasts offensive?

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Sunday Scraps 107

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1. GENDER: Dude writes for Quartz about adding a Mr. to his gender-neutral name and suddenly having doors open. Kind of a duh piece, but reassuring nonetheless.

2. BOOKS: Highly useful and equally addictive tool that recommends books based on other things you’ve read.

3. INTERWEBZ: Fun game from MIT where you map all of your email over all time and see how you email the most.

4. MERMAIDS: Excellent NYT essay from the excellent Virginia Sole-Smith on mermaid shows.

5. ART: Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls is awesome in her musical rebuttal to the idiotic Daily Mail who ragged on her for an exposed breast (NSFW).

6. MILLENNIALS: CNN.com comic by Matt Bors about why ripping on millennials is a) old news and b) boring.

Related Post: Sunday 106: Dustin Hoffman, Sex Ed, and Roxane Gay on a race-based VIDA test

Related Post: Sunday 105: Bodies that matter, isolated islands, literacy tests, etc.

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S(Monday) Scraps 105

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1. TEXAS: This is a long and beautiful piece by Amy Gentry for The Rumpus about abortion, body politics, and who we’re really protecting.

2. BADASS: Senator Claire McCaskill replies to James Taranto’s horrifying essay about how the fight against sexual assault in the military is actually a “war on men” and male sexuality. Taranto: 0, McCaskill: ALL OF THE POINTS.

3. TRAVEL: Fascinating essay by travel writer Simon Winchester about a tiny island of 300 people, Tristan de Cunha, and how he got banned from visiting for violating local customs.

4. HISTORY: In the wake of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Slate has an example of the dizzyingly confusing literacy tests that were used in the 50s and 60s to prevent black people from voting.

5. PLANNED PARENTHOOD: In case you ever forget what Planned Parenthood provides, a lovely essay from the blog What Are You Doing Here, Are You Lost?

6. CITIES: Chicago Magazine has an awesome series of panoramic shots of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, pre- and during industrial development.

Related Post: Sunday 104 – Books in pie-chart form, awesome ASL translators, what is a bro?

Related Post: Sunday 103 – Awesome people reading, pin-up presidents, Rich Kids of Instagram

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Sunday Scraps 104

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1. MUSIC: The sign-language interpreter steals the show at this Wu-Tang performance (Gawker). 

2. DATING: If you’re familiar with the sniveling “Nice Guys” who are very upset that their “niceness” doesn’t make girls want to sleep with them, you might enjoy this bit of satire from Insert Literary Reference.

3. HEALTH: Why is a colonoscopy 26x more expensive in the U.S. than in Canada? It’s complicated, says Mother Jones. 

4. BRO: What exactly is a bro? Venn diagrams to the rescue! And who is at the middle of it all? Lochte, of course.

5. VOWS: I thought nothing would top the wolf wedding announcement, but I was wrong.

6. BOOKS: Publisher’s Weekly explains some big name books in pie-chart form.

Related Post: Sunday 102 – Founding father pin-ups, rich kids of Instagram, authors annotating their first editions.

Related Post: Sunday 101 – Soldier portraits, cartoons about depression, Rihanna’s hairdresser

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Everything is About Everything

A few months ago I went to hear the artist Kara Walker speak about her work. Her art is primarily about race and racism and identity in American history, and in the interview she was asked about inspiration and influence. She’s a bit of a rambler generally, and this question really got her going. She mentioned postcards she’d found of black pin-up models, advertisements playing on stereotypes about black people and watermelons, illustrations of lynchings. She was reading Huckleberry Finn at the time, and that was floating around in her brain too. Finally, frustrated by all of the things she wanted to include in her list of influences, she threw up her hands and said, “Everything is about everything!” That’s pretty much how I feel about, well, everything.

I’m having an Everything is About Everything kind of week. For me, you know you’re having an EiAE week when you encounter at least three major pieces of media from different platforms simultaneously discussing the same themes and questions. For example, I tried to draw out this week’s Everything is About Everything Map:

photo (91)

Acronyms much? OKC = OkCupid, PUA = Pick-up Artists

The three anchors are:

  • Battlestar GalacticaTV show about a post-apocalyptic world in which a small band of humans are battling humanoid robots called Cylons.
  • Shine, Shine, ShineA novel by Lydia Netzer about an autistic astronaut, his pregnant wife, and the future of the human race.
  • Geekfest: How to Hack a Conversation – A presentation in my office on how to apply engineering logic and programming rules to human conversation to talk up strangers and meet new people.

None of them are asking exactly the same questions, but it all feels inextricably tangled. What makes a human a human? If a Cylon looks like a human, talks like a human, dies like a human… how is it any different? What can robots do that humans can’t? What can humans do that robots can’t?* Can we code a robot to sound exactly like a human? Can a conversation really be broken into if/then statements? Can humans use that code to have better conversations? Is that manipulative? Is it just brilliant? Does it matter if you’re filling in a “deficiency” to reduce your own anxiety vs. trying to get someone to bend to your will?

Oh, and look at that, I’m reading Mr. Penumbra now, which also adds some layers to this. Humans and robots working together. Will robots ever replace humans? WHAT. TOO MANY THINGS.  I guess I need to expand my map.

Welp,  this is about the nerdiest post I’ve written in a while. Happy Tuesday!

*According to Maxon, the astronaut in Shine, Shine, Shine, the three things robots can’t do are a) Show preference without reason (LOVE), b) Doubt rational decisions (REGRET), and c) Trust data from a previously unreliable source (FORGIVE).

Related Post: Another week where Everything was about Everything: Tigers and Grandparents

Related Post: My friend builds robots

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Can We Take the Life Apart?

I’m going to retread a little territory here because it’s been on my mind and what else is a blog good for if not to document how one’s thought processes evolve over time? Call it the Chris Brown Question for contemporary relevance, but it could equally be the Roman Polanski Problem, or the Pablo Picasso Predicament. That is, how do we reconcile professional respect or appreciation (Who doesn’t like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?) without condoning some horrifying and harmful behaviors?

I just finished Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder, about a team of researchers investigating ethically controversial new pharmaceuticals in the Amazon basin. A husband and wife duo have an argument about a well-regarded scientist who was also a chronic philanderer:

Nancy: “I’m not saying people don’t have affairs, even very decent people, let us be so lucky as to fall into that category. But we cannot unbraid the story of another person’s life and take out all the parts that don’t suit our purposes and put forth only the ones that do. He was a great scientist, I will grant you that, and by all accounts a true charismatic, but he was also deeply unfaithful to two women and frankly that bothers me. It bothers me that the man you say you wanted to become was a lifelong philanderer.”

Alan: “We can take the life apart. We do it all the time. Picasso put out cigarettes on his girlfriends and we don’t love the paintings any less for it. Wagner was a fascist and I can hum you every bar in the opening of Die Walkure.

Les_Demoiselles_d'AvignonThis argument doesn’t quite capture the Chris Brown Question because infidelity, while personally painful, is not high on my list of “bad behaviors.” Compared to, say, beating your girlfriend, raping a 13-year-old, or putting out cigarettes on humans, it’s pretty mundane. That said, the language of this passage helps articulate how I think about this stuff.

There’s the bad behavior that makes one a lousy role model (infidelity, selfishness, etc) and then there’s the Bad Behavior that makes you a shitty human (abusing people, sex crimes, etc). Does that distinction hold up? I don’t know… abuse and violence stem from someplace…and where does redemption and rehabilitation fit in? Bah. Pesky humans and their complicated psyches!

And if you’re someone in that second category, the capital-B category, can I really appreciate your art/music/writing as separate from the Bad Behavior? I don’t know.

This has not been a productive post because I have no answers. What do you think? If you stop dancing when Chris Brown comes on at the club, do you also walk by the Picasso room at the art museum?

Related Post: Can I listen to Chris Brown with a clear conscience?

Related Post: Dove, pioneer or panderer?

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After this brief commercial break…

I don’t usually use this space to push fundraisers on you because there are a zillion other internet spaces where that happens. I’m making an exception today,  however, because the stuff that I want to plug is close to home and hella important. Forgive me this brief commercial digression:

Screenshot_6_6_13_11_57_AMActive Transportation Alliance: If you live in Chicago, you may have heard about the death of Bobby Cann last week. He was a coworker of mine (though I didn’t know him) and an avid biker. He was hit by a car on his ride home from work just a few blocks from our office. The Active Transportation Alliance is raising money for 100 miles of protected bike lanes in Chicago. If you donate through this Groupon page, up to $10,000 will be matched.

Screenshot_6_6_13_12_02_PMWith Wings and Roots: Friends of mine are working on this incredible documentary, With Wings and Roots, about the immigration experiences of our peers in New York and Berlin. “In the US, we often think of immigration as a uniquely American issue. Rarely do we see the overlapping experiences of immigrant communities around the world. The stories in with WINGS and ROOTS force us to recognize the interconnectedness of our struggles and reimagine belonging beyond national borders.” The filming is complete, but the team is raising money to complete the editing.

Screenshot_6_6_13_12_03_PMApp Camp for Girls: It’s no surprise that rectifying the gender imbalance in the tech sector is close to my heart. I work in tech and I’m confronted every day by lack of women in our office and the weird treehouse-mentality that creates. While there are dozens of initiatives we can pursue at the top (think recruiting strategies, mentoring, etc.) starting early is the surest bet to changing the status quo. A new non-profit camp for girls is trying to get off the ground in Portland, OR. Girls will learn to build apps (we all know mobile is where it’s at) by working with female developers and designers.

If you can donate, donate. If you can’t, maybe spread the word. Pick one of these fine organizations and send along their Groupon/Kickstarter/Indiegogo to all your wealthier friends. Post, tweet, share, etc.

Thank you for your time, now on to our regular programming…

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