The Volume of Silence

In 2010 Marina Ambrovonic had a retrospective show at MoMa, as part of the retrospective she performed a new piece: The Artist is Present.  I don’t know why I was unaware of this show while it was occurring, but I only recently heard about it.  The Artist is Present invited attendees to sit across from Marina in the gallery and share a moment of silence.  Just sitting in silence.  The piece spawned facebook groups and blogs devoted to photos of the participants.  People smiled, people cried, people looked confused.  Marina was serene.  She was present.  It’s amazing and beautiful even to read about.

I wrote my final paper in my Modern Art class on one of Marina’s performance pieces.  I can’t honestly remember which one anymore, it was second semester of my senior year and I was more focused on my thesis than any other papers. But I remember parts of the research; I remember reading about her previous pieces, notably walking across the Great Wall of China to break up with her longtime boyfriend.  Marina and Ulay were/are both artists, they performed and worked together during the 70s and by all accounts were a passionate pair. When the relationship was no longer working, they decided to set off on a journey: they each started at a different end of The Great Wall and started walking.  In the middle the met, hugged, and said goodbye. The second half of the walk was the start of the next Journey.  After that moment in the middle of China, the said goodbye and didn’t make contact with the other again.  Until Marina’s retrospective, when Ulay came to participate in The Artist is Present.

This is one of the most beautiful, most touching things I have seen. It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch.  I’ve changed my desktop background to a still shot, to remind me.  Remind me of the beauty of passion and the importance of the journey.  Remind me to look into someone’s eye, to try to truly see. Remind me of the volume and multitude of things that can be expressed without speaking a word. It touches my heart.



Two memories.

1) 3rd grade. My friend Rebecca’s mom was an artist, like my mom, and she did a painting for our class based on Charlotte’s Web. I wanted everyone to know that my mom was an artist, too, so I suggested to her that she should paint our class a picture of the Boxcar Children (you know, in her spare time). She told me that she was sorry, but she couldn’t ever seem to get excited about making things that were other people’s ideas.

2) Junior or senior year of high school. Sitting on my bed, looking at an art school course catalogue, and thinking, “All of these majors look really cool...except for graphic design. I would never do that.” The page about the graphic design department had an image of a lemon. I recoiled from it the way one might a person whose behavior reminds you too much of your own secrets—the kind of reaction so strong it deserves to be examined, but usually isn’t.

I spent most of my life assuming that no matter what kind of artist I was, I would never, ever be a commercial one. Like, it would be much better to work at a job I don’t care about at all, than to compromise the purity of my artistic expression.

I came of age, after all, during the grunge era, and if I learned anything from Kurt Cobain (and from my mom), it was to avoid being a sell-out.

Now it’s 2013 and lo-fi has become an aesthetic found in car commercials and Taylor Swift videos, twee is an insult, and punk is an exhibit at the Met. Sleater-Kinney broke up and Carrie Brownstein is on TV making fun of the hegemony of the DIY aesthetic (“put a bird on it!”) We’re in a brave new world, people.

The friends I have who make art either:

a) Are commercial artists in one way or another (even if they also have a fine art practice)

b) Are part of academia


c) Feel like they have no idea how to make a living as an artist, and have a job doing something else.

I’m not sure if this is just me growing up or an actual cultural shift, but I do feel like the successful artists I’m aware of these days seem less like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites and more like Ben Stiller in Reality Bites. I mean, it’s easy to make fun of the Ben Stiller character because he kind of betrays Winona Ryder and he's such a people pleaser, but...he’s trying. Ethan Hawke is just stealing candy bars and making fun of her dress and sitting around the house acting like he’s above it all.

I’m almost done with the book trailer I’ve been working on—someone else’s words, someone else’s story, but my aesthetic and my visual interpretation. The overall “voice” of the project isn’t purely mine, but I believe in it to the extent that I feel good about putting my name on the finished product.

I’m thinking about that lemon. I remember the paper, it was matte. I remember the colors, yellow and green. It was a nice lemon, you know? You can do a nice still life painting of a lemon and photograph it and make a cool graphic image of it. You can do whatever you want with that lemon. It's a lemon, it's not going to get mad at you.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading samantha

Samantha Marie Bohnert enjoys the snow, words, adventures, writing letters and finding something new to dream of daily. She has been a writer since she could put pen (or pencil) to paper, and is inspired by many things, from the way the light hits her toes in the morning to the sounds of her surroundings. She lives in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio; a city that has kept her heart safe and follows her wherever she goes. Her love for coveting what is beautiful—and sharing that beauty with those around her—brings her happiness, always. The other day I was at my father’s pool, and I handed him a library book­–the standard, crinkly plastic-covered kind that smells like books from decades past­­–and after barely looking at it, he asked, “Do you still read?” Now, to any innocent bystander, a question like that would imply that not only did I used to read, but that I had also forsaken it long ago. But I knew the true meaning behind his inquiry: he wanted to know if I read with the same ferocity, dedication, and irreverence to my surroundings as I did in my youth. I was never a social child, and one would assume I lacked a nose because it was buried amongst pages during all waking hours. This was the girl my father knew well; a girl who preferred the company of fabricated strangers, and who could tune out any cacophonous setting. But that behavior is now a faint memory, as is my ability to regain that type of unwavering focus.

No one would suspect a lack of reading in my life; I have two bookshelves packed to the brim in my home, and I recently checked out five books from the library. But I have a terrible secret . . . that aforementioned book my dad shied away from? I haven’t even cracked it open. And one of those bookshelves is reserved exclusively for authors whose words I have never read. Please accept my apology Dostoevsky, Eugenides, Rushdie, but not Proust; I am saving the first volume of In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) for my own, personal column: “What Are you NOT Reading, Probably Ever.” From what I’ve gathered the work is every avid reader’s kryptonite, mocking him or her from the bedside table. I’ll get there when I get there, okay? I have even dedicated a special section of my blog to that ominous bookshelf called “Shelf Life.” And before you ask, no I haven’t finished the book mentioned there, either. But I digress. I am not some hoarder collecting books uncontrollably. My intentions are pure and true, but if I am being completely honest with myself, I buy books and wear out my library card because that is what happens when you love something so deeply. You immerse yourself in it, let it envelope you, let it overtake whole areas of your life (and apartment.)

My entire life has been spent coveting words, yet there was a significant and somewhat detrimental lull in the time I spent with my paged companions. I was growing up, exploring other interests (gasp!), and somehow I strayed. The only books I read in my undergraduate program were literature of a certain century, and graduate school was an amalgamation of rhetoricians classic and contemporary. Needless to say, I was pigeonholed. Maybe it was self-inflicted, but that is not important, nor relevant at this time. What is important is that I pushed away that past love of mine for something else, but as my life settles and my mind regains clarity, all I crave is a book that allows for the rest of the world to just…fall away. So I buy and I borrow; I read reviews of any published work that have just one thing about them that grabs my attention. It is a slow process, and I have to tell myself that I am not that wide-eyed girl with a wealth of time and freedom. And I certainly cannot just read anything anymore. I want to read words that move me, that cause a reaction. I once vowed that any book I started I would always finish, no matter how abhorrent. However, there have been certain stories I have read recently that are difficult to stomach. I proceed with trepidation and hope always, always that I will feel what I used to. I think I am getting there through the briefest of moments that occur in between wading through less than desirable writing. So fret not, fellow bibliophiles, and please explore those moments from the past year. Also, thank your lucky stars that I am not writing as my 12-year-old self; at that age I read more than 100 books in a year. Nowadays, I am lucky to get through 100 pages, so my list is much shorter. Enjoy.

L’Etranger (The Stranger) — Albert Camus

The Fifty Year Sword — Mark Z. Danielewski

Hannah Coulter — Wendell Berry

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — Dave Eggers

A Map of Tulsa — Benjamin Lytal

On Beauty — Zadie Smith

Currently, I am reading Whole, a non-fiction work by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and in a bold, yet silly move, I am simultaneously working my way through The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Check in with me in a few months, where you will probably witness me crying amidst a circle of unread books. Like a champ.

The Diary of a First Time Filmmaker

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, I am making a film. Does that make me a filmmaker? I'm not sure how this all started.

I guess it began back in August last year when I traveled from Virginia to New York to go to that blogging conference. I wasn’t much of a blogger, really. I was mostly unemployed, living in a dank hunting cabin that was infested with stink bugs and a rowdy squirrel family, and feeling mixed up about my next step in life.

I had hoped the cabin would help me make progress towards my goals. I hoped blogging would magically make me more dillegent in my writing practice. I hoped I would find a way to get out of coffee shop and retail jobs for good. The blogging conference was my first real step towards what I wanted to be doing with my time.

Don’t get me wrong, Diary. There’s nothing wrong with working in retail or pulling shots of espresso to get by. I still work in the service industry to pay rent. It was just that I didn’t know how to balance that work with the work I wanted to be doing in writing and filmmaking. The cabin gave me time to apply to writing residencies. It gave me the safe feeling I needed to share my work with someone other than my writing partner.

My time at the cabin also gave me some perspective on other work I had done that hadn’t been a good fit. I had worked as a production assistant on commercials, documentary films, industrials, and reality shows. But I think it was a safety net to work those kinds of jobs. I wanted to be close to filmmaking, but I never actually made any films. I was close to something I loved, but not actually embracing it full on. I enjoyed working in production but I wasn’t sure it was helping me find my voice. It wasn't much different than working at a coffee shop or in retail.

At the blogging conference, just like when I had worked on production gigs, I struggled to explain my story. I was a complete failure at “branding” myself in a way that made any sense or felt honest. Freelance production assistant/barista/salesperson? Aspiring director/editor/ writer? I didn’t know what I was about, let alone what my blog was about. Was it about my move to the cabin? About my budding interest in food? My pets?

It mostly became about my pets. 

I had a hard time connecting with people at the conference because I was so confused by my own blog. One person I did connect with was Lisa Weldon. We met at a small group session about writing book proposals based on personal blogs. The content of the workshop went in one ear and out the other, but Lisa’s story stayed with me. After the session I introduced myself and wrote a little note on a piece of paper with my contact information since I didn’t have any business cards. I also wrote “you’re awesome!” because, well, she is.

After a few weeks back at the cabin thinking about why I liked Lisa’s story so much, I emailed her and asked if I could write a screenplay about her experience. Lisa had walked every block in New York City the summer before and mastered social media in the process. She said yes.

Eventually I realized that reaching out to Lisa about her story was also a security blanket of sorts. I thought if I wrote about a compelling story that had really happened I’d have justification to write a screenplay. None of my own ideas could be good enough for a script, I figured, I needed someone else to help me along.

Lisa encouraged my writing through emails and calls. We even hung out in her hometown of Atlanta so I could do research for the screenplay. But then a funny thing happened. The story stopped being mostly about Lisa’s trip to New York two years ago, and started being about our relationship. We sent each other drafts of stories, sample chapters, and general positive vibes about our respective creative ventures. We stopped talking about the screenplay, and started talking about a documentary.

Now, almost eight months later, I’m almost halfway through with a short documentary — my first film — about Lisa and a few other talented people who shaped my time at the cabin.

I find it hard to think about what the filmmaking process has been like so far.

This is all I can think of:

At the cabin I used to sit on a concrete bench beneath a rotting old walnut tree. I’d look out across the flood plain and watch deer flicker through the trees. I would watch groundhogs perk up on their hind feet, nibbling grass and rolling their wary glistening eyeballs back and forth across the field. I’d watch birds, those bright little singing kites, gliding through currents of sky.

Making my first film feels something like watching a wild animal from far away. Maybe it's the not knowing what will happen next. Sometimes the deer disappear into the trees, other times they freeze, heads perked up like the wary groundhogs. And sometimes the birds take off over the ridge and soar higher into the clouds, higher than you'd think a bird could go.


word traveler

"I am the leper.  The demoniac.  I, who was paralyzed by fear, who was blind. The prostitute, the dead man in the tomb.  Me, All me."


Some time ago I traveled throughout Israel and ever since I came back I’ve felt the need of reading more about this State and its history. I wanted to start from non-fiction books, which probably made more sense, but then my inner fictional self overcame rationality: I picked this novel and went through the pages like a child going through piles of candies :-)

And this is how I met him in the very first pages, when he was hung upon a tree. History has called him many things, a thief, a liar, and a traitor. His very name is synonymous with betrayal. He has been despised and rejected by men, in the end people avoided him as if he was a leper, and he came to abhor himself. His name is Judas.

In “Iscariot”, the author Tosca Lee begins her story when Judas is a small child in Jerusalem and revolts are ongoing at the gates of Herod's Temple. When his family move to Sepphoris, the revolt follows them casting its shadow upon Judas’ father and brother (don’t want to spoil here!).

Judas grows and becomes a religious leader, he finds a wife and lives a happy life, but he is tormented and feels that something essential is missing.

People had been talking about John the Baptizer for weeks, calling him a madman. When Judas and Simone go to investigate on him at the Jordan River, Judas sees along the shores a figure, whom he will never forget–Jesus. He is thin, and walks unsteadily on his feet after forty days in the desert. His skin is dark from overexposure to the sun. When their eyes meet, Judas can’t look away.

From this point on, I couldn’t put the book down. How hard must it be for a writer to successfully write a novel when the ending is already known? We know how the story goes: thirty pieces of silver as a payment, a kiss, betrayal, remorse, and in the end Jesus’ death. But Tosca Lee handles all of it with ability and grace. She has the perception of a poet, the preparation of a scholar, and is a very creative novelist with the huge gift of storytelling. In my mind I saw the apostles, I shared the bread with them, and I imagined their weaknesses and felt their doubts towards the controversial figure of Jesus. And I had a clear picture about an important issue: why so many didn't believe Jesus was the promised Messiah and fought against him? Because they wanted someone to punish the Romans, but Jesus was the opposite. He stood up for the oppressed, but he did not condemn the oppressors, he cared for the restoration of individuals more than the fate of a nation.

This is a brilliantly written historical fiction, with some of artistic freedom, and it certainly implied lots of research. Iscariot is filled with local detail that makes the story come alive. It’s clear and believable, but still, it’s fiction! So I had to keep in mind that not much is known about Judas, but this story, told by the voice of the main character, is very powerful and carries you all the way till the end. It’s a fictional account about Judas, but yet it’s a true account about Jesus and his time. I’m glad I could experience moments of mystery reading this book, and now I find myself imagining Jesus and his apostles living, praying and struggling in places I once was so lucky to visit.

A Guide to the Many, Many Markets of London

mind the gap

Columbia Road Flower Market

London loves markets.  More than any city I’ve been to, London has a market for everything: for food, for vintage clothes, for Sunday strolling, for flowers, for techno music for children (no, really).  They’re full of shouting British shopkeepers and one of a kind souvenirs, of puddings made of blood and maps from the 1600s, of fresh crepes and live guitar music.  They offer an experience of London at its finest and most distinctively London, but there are so many that it’s often hard to figure out where to begin.  This week, Zack and I are hosting our first visitor (hi, Matt!), for whom I’ve narrowed down the London market experience to its best and most diverse:

For anyone who likes to eat their way through the day: Borough Market, Borough Market, Borough Market.  A definitive London foodie experience, Borough Market has been operating in its present location by the Thames River for almost a thousand years (2016 will mark the thousandth anniversary).  You’ll find fresh baguettes driven over from France that day, pistachio kibbeh, pitchers of Pimm’s Cups, venison burgers, Spanish chorizo, fresh fudge, and all of the fruit and vegetables you could ever want.  Go hungry and sample your way through the stalls with a cocktail or cider in hand; if you commit to one of the more meal-like options, the grass in front of Southwark Cathedral makes a great place to settle.  Borough Market is open from 11 – 5 pm on Thursdays, 12 – 6 pm on Fridays, and 9 – 5 pm on Saturdays.

For people who have at least one plaid shirt in their closet, and maybe a pair of black rimmed glasses: Brick Lane has basically everything, from amazing live music to all types of prepared food to vintage bric-a-brac of all sorts.  Flip through a vintage record collection, slide on a fifteen-pound fake leather jacket, and grab yourself an Eton Mess (a jumble of the biggest, most glorious meringues you’ve ever seen, whipped cream and strawberries).  Pick up a CD of techno music designed specifically for children, and then make your way through the Indian restaurants, where proprietors will shout as you walk by to lure you into their establishments.  While you’re there, pop into Sunday UpMarket (with more established shops, as well as many design stalls and amazing Tui Na massage) or the Old Truman Brewery Vintage Clothing Market, the name of which says it all.

For those with green thumbs, or craving a slice Dickensian London:  You’ll hear the scene on Columbia Road before you see it.  Thick British accents are shouting through the air: “Every-fing for a fiver!  Don’t trust the other fellow – you want leaves that are dead already, go over there.  You want brilliant, bloomin’ blossoms?  You know where to go!”  Even if you don’t want to buy anything, the flower market is worth a trip for the characters that fill it, and for the feeling that you’ve somehow stepped a century back in time.  Columbia Road itself is worth a peek too---it’s filled with charming old map stores, little vintage shops, and more than one saliva inducing bake shop.  The flower market is every Sunday from 8 am till 3---come toward the end if you’re looking to buy as the prices drop.  On a sunny day, there’ll be live music as well.

For lovers of antiques and/or Hugh Grant:  Perhaps the best-known market in London, Portobello Road has been featured in many a movie, including the aptly named Notting Hill.  While the street is winding and picturesque any day (even if the said hill is more like a light slope), Saturday finds vintage dealers from all over the country pulling out their wares: I’ve seen boxing gear from the 1930s, pocket watches from the 1700s, a collection of bells from the sixteenth century.

For people who want what’s cool before the cool thing even knows it’s cool: Brixton is currently in the middle of a (wanted or not) gentrification, and its market is no exception.  Tiny, trendy restaurants featuring all that is free-range, organic and innovative mix with shops halal meats and Reggae CDs, wigs and exotic spices.  With far fewer tourists than other markets, Brixton is worth a stop on any day of the week, although Saturday brings a rotating flea, craft or baker’s market, and Sunday a more traditional farmer’s market.

Because punk will live forever:  Famous and famously funky, Camden Market is the place to go for the most comfortable possible version of an alternative scene.  Fight your way through the tourist oriented stalls selling Union Jack flags and screen printed T-shirts and you’ll find one of the most renowned Goth stores in town, vintage furniture worthy of a movie (one of the stalls, in fact, is owned by a studio set designer), and plenty of people inconspicuously selling cannabis of all kinds.  Grab a liquid nitrogen ice cream (the lychee rose with cardamom pistachio topping is to die for), or pop into my favorite teashop in London, Yum Chaa – I recommend the Om Tea, a white-nutmeg-blackberry blend.

This, of course, is just a sampling of my favorites---I could go on for days, including Spitalfields Market, Angel Market, Greenwich Market, Piccadilly Market and more.  Have you had a chance to explore the many markets of London?  What’s your favorite?

Zelda Fitzgerald: Flapper. Artist. Author's Wife.

historical woman

In our ruggedly individualistic culture, I often wonder: what is it like to be famous because of the person you’re married to? To appear in the press, go down in history books, as “so-and-so’s wife”—to never, ever be mentioned without your spouse as starting point or explanation? In some ways, I think it must be harder even than being a nobody, like the rest of us. At least we can pretend at the idea of absolute autonomy, that we achieved what we have on our own. Even if you’re nobody, you are your own nobody. You’re second to nobody.

Zelda Fitzgerald, whose life reads like an exciting tabloid drama (and who, clearly, would make the best E! True Hollywood Story), is one of those, a Somebody’s Wife. Her Somebody is renowned Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. You know, The Great Gatsby guy. That book you had to read in high school that you still kind of remember and is now a Baz Luhrmann movie. Their life together was glamorous, whirlwind, tumultuous, and ultimately short-lived. It reads like an American Greek tragedy. And while F. Scott had some tough breaks, I have to say, I really feel like Zelda had it even tougher.

Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayres, came from a prominent family in Alabama. There were senators, judges, etc. amongst the men in her family, so she was definitely your classic, privileged Southern Belle. However, it seems Zelda was a little, I don’t know, spunkier than her fellow SBs: drinking, smoking, seeing boys. That might have been why F. Scott was so taken with her upon their first meeting—he probably recognized a kindred spirit.

As soon as F. Scott’s first novel, Tender Is the Night, was published, he and Zelda were married. In no time, they were the It Couple of the 1920s New York (and later Paris) party scene. They drank. They cavorted. They spent money. They fought. It was all very Great Gatsby. Also, as you probably saw in Midnight in Paris, they were friends with many other American artistic luminaries: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas.

As her husband’s star was on the rise, Zelda threw herself into her childhood passion, ballet. It was a little late in life to start a career as a dancer, but for a while she devoted herself wholly to the art. It didn’t come to anything. Later, she would also take her shots at both painting and writing. The gist is, she seems to have been pretty good at all three. But what kind of career could the hard-partying wife of a super-famous hard-partying author really expect to have?

And eventually, even her role as Famous Wife wasn’t going too well. The drinking and fighting started to dominate a little too much of the couple's time. They both had drinking problems; they both had affairs. Zelda’s emotional health declined. She did one stint in a sanatorium (old-timey rehab) before checking into a psychiatric facility, which she was in and out of for the remainder of her life. She died in 1948, in a North Carolina hospital, trapped in the building when a fire burned it down. Terrible way to go, and first on my list of two tragic famous people psychiatric ward deaths (the other is composer Robert Schumann).

Only more recently has interest in Zelda’s artistic output been renewed, both her paintings and her 1932 semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz.

Zelda’s story, for me, brings to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s amazing, amazingly creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a confined housewife slowly goes mad in the room where she spends most of her time, and which was based on Gilman’s own experiences with mental illness and marriage. Zelda and Gilman’s heroine are different, sure—one was stuck indoors in the 1890s, the other was liberated and living it up in the 1920s literary party scene—but that stifling quality of being forever in the shadow of your male partner, constantly searching for that space that through your accomplishments you can call your own, seems in line on an emotional level with that more, perhaps, timeless female struggle. Maybe that’s why Zelda’s story still resonates today.

xxxix. provence

postcards from france

There is an opportunity to take cooking classes in traditional provençal cuisine with a local, professional chef, and I jump at the chance along with many of my ACCP classmates. The chef is an aixois named Didier, sleepy-eyed and flirtatious in his 50s, who owns the most expensive restaurant in the city. Supposedly there is an interior garden courtyard where you can eat your 60 Euro a bowl bouillabaisse. For this class we are making ratatouille, my favorite dish, but I am distracted by the way Didier is hovering over Alice, touching her hip lightly and leading her hands to chop the vegetables. She is obviously uncomfortable, but he doesn’t move away. He is so close that his breath stirs Alice’s light hair.

With much urging from the rest of us, Alice tells Helen what happened during class. Helen tells her that in southern France, men are just more forward, and that there is nothing wrong with what Didier, dear, sweet Didier, was doing. The next time he comes to the center, she hangs on to his arm as well as his every word.

Alice doesn’t go back to the last class, and I wouldn’t have, either.

Leela and Lois: The Strong Female Character in the Male-Centered Animated Comedy

strong female characters

I watched an episode of “Futurama” recently (this isn’t an uncommon occurrence), and in it the whole staff of the Planet Express is stranded on a barren island that has begun to go through robo-evolution, starting with prehistoric robot sludge and yielding robot dinosaurs and then robot cavemen in a matter of hours. Fry, Leela, Amy, Hermes, the Professor, and robot Bender are reduced to wearing tattered clothing and sleeping in a cave. Leela and Amy, in particular, come out looking a little Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., practically busting out of their rags—yet when they’re kidnapped by a couple robo-cavemen, like modern, empowered women, they take care of it themselves while the (generally weaker) male characters equivocate about going to save them.

This was kind of “Futurama” in a nutshell for me. Leela’s bodacious bod and the extent to which it is occasionally revealed is a small reminder that this is a male-created series with a largely male audience. Yet on the whole, I find Leela to be a really positive, self-sufficient female character, particularly in what can be a male-centric genre. For comparison, let’s look at “Family Guy.”

Seth MacFarlane’s pop reference-laden, kinda fratty animated series has a lot in common with “Futurama.” Their demographic target audience is roughly the same (“Futurama” is a little nerdier). They’ve both been on since the late ‘90s, with a hiatus in the middle (“Family Guy” went off the air between 2001 and 2005; “Futurama”’s was longer, between 2003 and 2010). They’re both, essentially, cartoons for adults.

I find that “Family Guy” has moments of real brilliance, particularly in its early episodes. I love the observational humor on human behavior, and some of the culture references are hilarious. It can be really, really smart. But it can also be really, really stupid—and worse, it casually drifts into racist, misogynist territory pretty regularly---see worst repeat offending character Glenn Quagmire. In that, the show's humor is a clear reflection of the personality of its creator, Seth MacFarlane—see the controversies raised by his Oscar-hosting turn earlier this year for evidence. He lives to provoke, even though his non-provoking material could stand perfectly well on its own-- see his awesome turn hosting “Saturday Night Live” last fall, for evidence of his talent.

The main female character on “Family Guy,” Lois, isn’t a bad representation of womanhood per se. She’s pretty tough, fairly well drawn character-wise, and often the voice of reason. But, besides for the fact that she’s surrounded by often offensive material, she also ultimately falls short compared to “Futurama”’s Leela.

Why is Leela awesome? Well, for starters, she’s a statuesque purple-haired one-eyed mutant in a tanktop and combat boots. She can kick the ass of any other character on the show. She’s the object of affection for the dim-witted protagonist, Fry; she only occasionally returns these affections, you know, when she feels like it. But there’s something really sweet and authentic in their relationship, and in Fry’s devotion to her. It’s not just lust, nor is it perfunctory or idealized. Throughout the series, Fry is really, believably in love with Leela.

In fact, the nature of Fry and Leela’s relationship is a microcosm for the overall tone of the show. While “Futurama” definitely deals in gross-out humor and sophomoric jokes, the core attitude is never mean-spirited and almost never offensive (I only say “almost” because while nothing comes to mind, nothing is never offensive, right?). The characters, no matter how colorful, have a genuineness—their hopes, their actions, their relationships.

Also, there has been more than one “Futurama” episode that’s been an actual, real tearjerker. One of these is an episode in which the foster home-raised Leela discovers that her birth parents are below-ground-dwelling mutants who gave her up for adoption in the hopes of giving her a better life, and with whom she is reunited after years of separation. The episode ends with a montage of young Leela growing up, going through various life situations, and in all of them, unbeknownst to her, her mother and father are watching over her, looking out for her, and occasionally plucking her from imminent danger. It’s pretty much as heartwarming as TV gets.

So not only is Leela kick-ass in the vein of Buffy, Starbuck, and the Bride, she also belongs to a cartoon universe that treats its characters with sweetness and respect—as much as is possible with animated screwup robots, lobster people, mutants, and cryogenically frozen humans. All of this is pretty sorely lacking in its male-centric, purposely-offensive “Family Guy” counterparts (see also: South Park, American Dad, Daniel Tosh’s horrible Brickleberry). In my books—both the feminist one and the general one-- “Futurama” wins every time.

Addendum: A quick Google image search to find a good Leela picture for this post has yielded a further discovery: that no matter how awesome and feminist a character Leela is, the reception of her by the largely male audience can still be as creepy and fetishizing as anything. It was actually really hard to find a non-sexual image. Sigh. I guess it still beats Family Guy rape jokes.

xxxviii. états-unis

postcards from france

From time to time, Fréd sends stories that he’s written in French for me to translate into English. In his third year of university, he’s working to become a French literature professor, and the course of study requires a few classes in translation. Though his spoken English isn’t bad, Fréd doesn’t see the point in not taking advantage of a bilingual friend. And I'm all to eager to work on my translation skills. I’m working on one of Fréd's stories when I hear the soft pop of a Facebook chat. It’s the author himself. After clearing up the meaning of one of the more idiomatic phrases on page seven, Fréd asks me what my plans are for next year. You’re done with school soon, right?

I tell him yes, that I’m looking for a job, that I want to be a journalist. It looks like I’ll eventually be moving out west — San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Santa Fe. I’ve never really explored the United States that much.

Are you done with us? he asks, half-joking, adding a winky face. Fréd loves emoticons. Are you done with France?

I laugh at the absurdity of the notion. God, no, I write. Not done with France. Never done. And even though I’m a bit miffed when Fréd’s professor gives him a 92% percent on the translation, I know this is still true.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading

Erin Riley was born in Los Angeles, spent some time living in Maine and Boston, and currently lives in the Scottsdale, Arizona.  She has four kids—two grown up boys (men, really) and two little girls.  Riley graduated from law school, but doesn’t work as a lawyer.  Her real training is in philosophy, but as everyone knows, the call for professional philosophers has really dropped off in the two hundred years or so.  She recently started a blog, Ordinary Good Fortune, as a forum for her musings about everyday life.  She loves to write—almost as much as she loves to read, which is a lot---and would someday like to achieve the goal outlined in her third grade career day essay and be “the authoress of many, many books and stuff.”  For the time being, she tries to squeeze in some writing between getting her little girls to eat their dinner and clipping money saving coupons.  She’d also like to let everyone know that she is the woman who is married to the best guy in the world. She sincerely hopes everyone else is very happy anyway, though.

Here's the thing you should know about me and books:  I read a lot.

I wasn't always a promiscuous reader.  At first, I was a serial monogamist, a dedicated lover of an author or series of books.  My first serious involvement was at six, when my mom introduced me to Nancy Drew.  This was after a brief, unsatisfying, encounter with the Bobbsey Twins.  I could never really get close to them though, because, honestly, two sets of fraternal twins (one blond, one brunette) solving the candy-coated mysteries they stumbled into at ski lodges and amusement parks?  It seemed pretty far-fetched to me.  I felt like I was being lied to.

So my first true literary love was old-school Nancy, the motherless daughter of a kindly lawyer. She was an independent lass out on her own much of the time in the surprisingly dark underbelly of her idyllic town, River Heights, where there were plenty of diverted inheritances to restore and missing treasures to recover.  Not only did each book keep me going from chapter to chapter (these were the first books I read by night-light glow after I was supposed to have gone to sleep) but the series kept me moving from book to book.  I hungered for the next time I could read Nancy again.  I didn't feel like I was fulfilled until I gone through every volume I could  wheedle my parents into buying.  When Nancy and I were through, I fell for Encyclopedia Brown.

I wasn't satisfied for long though.  I got my own library card and soon, the Mission Viejo main branch was knowingly facilitating my year-long liaison with Agatha Christie.  I met Poirot on the deadly, fast-moving Orient Express, and Miss Marple in a cozy yet dangerous vicarage in the English countryside.  I devoured book after book.  I even read the Tommy and Tuppence stories, mixing it up with the bright young things of London in the 1920's.  By the time the Babysitter's Club and the Sweet Valley High series were luring YA readers in my suburban neighborhood, I was already plowing my way through Harlequin Romances, and I had started to seek fresher, more adult thrills---Stephen King and Nora Roberts and other prolific authors cranking out book after book. Even though they didn't stick with the same characters, I could still be faithful.  I proved my devotion over and over as I moved on to classic literature, having it on with Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, even Henry James, sipping tea in the drawing rooms of country homes and working in the sculleries of forbidding manors and setting off on European Grand Tours with the richest and poorest of relations.  Even when they didn't appear on my summer lists of required reading for high school.

But soon, even though I still went everywhere with a "good" novel tucked into my bag, my head was turned  by the new fiction that flowed freely in the Brat Pack era---Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis---you know the types. I worked in bookstores then, and before I knew it, I was heavily into Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie and Michael Chabon.  I cruised the reviews looking for something  hadn't seen before. Then, I began to really play the field. I read memoirs and literary nonfiction. I did what I hadn't thought possible:  if a book didn't really do it for me, I'd dump it for a new one.  I'd start several books at a time, lead some on and then shelve them for months or callously return them, unfinished, to the library from which I'd borrowed them.   I could still fall in love, of course, drawn in slowly by little details, then driven to stay up all night to feverishly finish a novel, work and kids be damned.  I'd witlessly sleepwalk through the next day just to reach the conclusion of my latest literary conquest.

As real life got more hectic, I found myself inescapably drawn to short stories and essays.  Maybe it's all the time I've spent in college and grad school.  When you always have something you're supposed to be reading, like tort cases or comparisons of the good life according to Plato and Aquinas, free reading is totally cheating on your required material. Reading a short story from a collection now and then is like flirting with that cute guy at the office, where you giggle and twist your hair and enjoy a flushed, provocative moment. It gets you in the mood for some real action with your steady, serious partner. But reading a novel is like having an affair, somehow leading a double life because you become so deeply involved, you neglect your main relationship. These things often end in tears.

So what am I reading now?  Short stories, baby.  And essays.  I still read novels of course, but it's always  the same:  I tell myself I'll go slowly, but I become involved to the exclusion of everything else, staying up late to finish and swearing that I won't do it again---for a while.  But I'm so easily drawn back in.  I just can't help myself.  I'm obsessed by good prose, in whatever form I find it.

A few story collections I'm currently enamored with:  What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander;  The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham; You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett;  and Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, both by Karen Russell.  I've also recently loved Eat, Memory:  Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times, edited by Amanda Hesser; Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford and Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple.

Right now, I'm in the middle of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, edited by Nell Casey.  Yeah, I'm reading all of them at the same time.  Don't judge---like I said, I just can't help myself.


word traveler

What’s left when someone disappears? Only memories? What can the relatives hang on to? A sweater, a favorite book with scribbled notes, a shopping list on the refrigerator, a comb, a pair of shoes. Familiar and insignificant objects that suddenly become special when who used them every day is no longer with us.

Not much more is left from the women of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since 1993, hundreds of women have been murdered in this desert city. Many of the bodies have never been found, no faces to be kissed one last time by the parents or the children. Estimates have been made by the local newspaper and they don’t aim to be accurate–878 women killed between 1993 and 2010. Not much has been done by the local authorities, and there are a very large number of women who are still lost.

As Haruki Murakami wrote in Dance, Dance, Dance, “Precipitate as weather, she appeared from somewhere, then evaporated, leaving only memory.

In Ciudad Juárez, pasted on storefronts and house walls, you see photographs of the missing women. «Disappeared. Contact us if you know something». Sometimes the remains are found in the vast desert that surrounds the city, sometimes they are not, and the families keep praying and hoping. The homicides continue, and the women usually come from poor families. What expect them are tortures and rapes, and cold nights and hot days in a desert that becomes their tomb.

In honor of the hundreds of women and girls killed in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican visual artist Elina Chauvet started «Zapatos Rojos» (Red Shoes) in 2009. It's an art project that consists in lots of pairs of red or red-painted shoes to commemorate the cases of violence against women in the whole world. Her first work was realized in Ciudad Juarez—she, together with other people who acknowledged the “feminicide”, collected 33 pairs of red shoes and arranged them in place to simulate a protest march of absent women. Now it goes beyond the border of Mexico. This silent march arrived in my hometown, too, and I'm so proud about it: two installations occupied Piazza Vecchia (the Old Town Square) from May 12th till May 15th. It’s “public art” because people were making it. Everybody could contribute–many women were donating their old shoes, and painting them in red before leaving them in the piazza. It was nice to see families doing this together.

No words were needed, because those shoes were telling the stories of emptiness and torture of those who were left behind.

This quote from Murakami’s book somehow seems perfect to me:

Dance," said the Sheep Man. "Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don'teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you'restuck. Sodon'tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou're tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon'tletyourfeetstop.” ― Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading erin

Erin Anacker is a recovering web designer and a people enthusiast. Over the last year, she has transitioned pixology—her nimble little business—into a place encouraging entrepreneurship, developing community, and supporting women in graphic design. With a passionate voice, she seeks to empower others and initiate authentic conversations around design and entrepreneurship. Her recent ventures include GLIMPSE, a magazine featuring independent, female designers; and Women in Design (co), a website selling curated collaborative artwork by a rotating selection of female designers.

Erin is an avid outdoor adventure seeker and an intentional wine drinker who is shamelessly independent, and most of all, sassy.

It was with every fiber of my ten-year-old body that I resisted any form of reading. I especially hated reading aloud. What’s the point? I already know how to read. Why continuing doing the most boring thing in the world? Plus, I was terrible at it. “Sounding it out” is quite possibly the worst advice you could give a kid learning written language, English spelling being unpredictable and inconsistent.

I was an incredibly energetic, sassy, and silly kid. I really didn’t have time to read. There was so much more of the world calling for my active participation. Why sit passively when I could play spy games with the other ninjas and spies of the neighborhood? (FYI, the sweep of street lights are force fields.)

Unfortunately, reading did not come easily for me, physically or mentally. It was hard to sit still. To pay attention. To have patience for the slow passing of words and for my own clumsy navigation. I’m fairly certain this had little to do with my innate abilities and everything to do with a lack of inspired teaching.

However, I made my way through high school without too much struggle—just a few frustrating, tear-filled, late nights when my mom would stay up late to help me write papers. My parents saw my issues with reading as more critical than I remember them to be. Thank goodness. I’m not sure how, but I know my path would have been different. They enrolled me in the reading program at Sylvan Learning Center my sophomore year. Though there was no “aha” moment or ignition of enthusiasm for reading, I got better at it.

Fast forward to my first college paper. I failed, miserably so. I continued to struggle with grasping more than surface-level plots, especially in times of strain and panic. A blank screen at 11:30pm the night before the paper was due didn’t exactly set me up for success. Luckily, my professor—who remains one of the more influential—took a special interest in me. With his encouragement and belief in my potential, I began to read with more clarity and understanding, and even, a bit of interest.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I really struck up a love affair with the written word. I wonder if I was just a late bloomer. Something did change around age 26. I felt my mind expand and engage with the world in new way. Now, at age 29, I’ve read more than 50 books in the last two years, as opposed to the two or three of years past.

Just last winter, I picked up The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamond Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, recommended to me by my friend Sarah Bray, a fabulous lady and voracious reader. The Zanders present a new way of approaching relationships, creativity, and self-engagement. Their framework forces a fundamental shift, questions the assumptions our brains have fixed as truth, and introduces world-altering objectivity where anything is possible.

I am particularly enamored with this book. In fact, I am going to read it again—absorb the pages into my life. What I love most about the content is the idea that we can become what we have always dreamed. In the deep veins of possibility, we can love and create. In the most real way, we can grow into our potential. We can even learn to enjoy something we once resisted and overcome the insecurities that once held us back.

Librarian Love

librarian love

I had an intimate relationship with my librarian as a child.  Now, before you get all sexy secretary on me,  I’m talking about the holding-books-for-me-she-thought-I’d-enjoy, not-telling-my-parents-when-I-check-out-Flowers-in-The-Attic-twice-in-a-row kind of relationship.  The stacks, the stacks, my childhood church, with the librarian as High Priestess, where I spent countless hours literally sticking my nose in books, drinking in the wood and verbena smells like a wine taster with a big sloshing glass of cabernet.

Nearly every day I would ride my bike to the library, run in, plop a stack of torn-through paperbacks on the librarian’s desk, and ask, “What cha got for me next?”  Often she had some held for me, other times she’d sigh and say, “I can’t keep up with you, kid, I got work to do!” all while smiling and pointing me to the fiction section, where I’d invariably pick up the next in Stephen King’s autour, receiving no judgment from said librarian that I was reading horror instead of Little House on the Prairie.

When I got to high school, and found the librarian a wacky, neglected lady, who would draw little aliens on my bathroom pass during Study Hall, and just yearned for someone to take her up on her offer to show them how to properly cite a reference in their term paper.  I started doing my homework in her office instead of at my desk, because she was one of the few faculty members who wasn’t afraid of my teen angst, manifesting itself those days in tangerine hair that fell over my scowling eyes in ways that made most shopkeepers in our suburban enclave follow me around their stores.  But the librarian, an outsider herself for being too quirky and well-read for acceptance at pep rallies and the local Ruby Tuesdays, could care less if I had painted my fingernails black and invited her to the Hatebreed show at the VFW.

When I reached college, I’d realized that a first name basis with a librarian was a shoo-in to your name at the top of the list for reference texts, which I needed desperately because I couldn’t afford to buy all the books on my syllabus.  I showed up with a plant for the librarian and was shortly sitting behind the desk, eating donuts and discussing C.S. Lewis versus J.R.R. Tolkien.  College was the place where I finally found “my people”, and could not consider myself an outcast anymore, in need of a lonely librarian for a friend.  It was then that my librarian relationship shifted from a Fairy Bookmother to a more utilitarian one, based on need for books rather than a place to land.  I started to realize that the reason I loved the library so much as a child was that it was one of the few places it was socially acceptable for a child to be alone in.  Now that I was grown, I had the freedom to go anywhere I wanted by myself, no longer needing the watchful eye of the librarian to guard me from the dangers of life outside the shelves.

These days, as a parent, I rely on the library for a place to take my child on rainy days, singing I’m A Little Tea Pot and exploring their selection of Sendak and Taro Gomi, introducing my child to every librarian we see.  It’s paying off.  My two-year-old recently saw the librarian at the farmer’s market, and it was like she had a celebrity sighting to the magnitude of a tween seeing Justin Beiber at Starbucks — “Look! Look!” she desperately pointed, her face a mixture of shock and delight.  The wizened librarian came over, patted her afro and said, “I’ve got those Charlie and Lola books waiting for you when you come in next.”  And I felt the circular nature of books, calling to me, calling to my daughter, calling to all of us, “come join our world of words!”

What the Bechdel Test Says about Your Favorite Movies

strong female characters

Strong female characters—or even mediocre female characters—can be in short supply in Hollywood, on both the big and small screens. It’s something I’ve become more aware of as the years go by, and it's a bit dismaying. Recently, I’ve discovered that one of the best quick-view gauges by which to determine whether a film has adequate female representation is the Bechdel Test. Named for comic strip author Alison Bechdel, who with a friend devised the criteria back in the 1980s, the test has three really simple steps. First, are there two (named) female characters? Second, do they ever have a conversation with each other? Third, is their conversation about something other than a male character?

If the answer to these three questions is yes, it passes the test.

These three incredibly simple rules, amazingly, ruled out almost every single DVD on my shelf, including some of my favorite films. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Nope. The Lord of the Rings? Not even close. (And that is in spite of the fact that they proportionally really blew up Arwen’s role from Tolkien’s original text.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? No, because apparently Jeannie and her mom only talk about her troublesome brother Ferris.

It wasn't surprising to me that some of my more man-centric favorite films---The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, In Bruges, The Lord of the Rings---wouldn't pass. But even films with seemingly more positive and more frequent portrayals of women missed the mark in that they were still, ultimately, male-centric.

Blockbusters like the Batman series and The Avengers fail with flying colors (though there’s some dispute over whether The Dark Knight passes, as there is a scene where a female detective is forced at gunpoint to call another female character. Kind of a sad excuse for passing, if so). The only sure bet that a film will pass seemed to me to be if the lead character was a woman—but even that was called into question when I looked up The Little Mermaid (come on, Disney! Not surprising, I guess, when the character's sole motivation is marrying her prince).

The conclusion is that, despite all of the forward progress we’ve made, there are still some substantial holes in our cultural fabric when it comes to diverse and frequent media representations of women. Ensemble casts tend to be “rounded out” with one major female character; all-male leads segment off the female characters into the roles of wife, co-worker, mother, where they all exist only in relation to the male(s); or, as the test rightly points out, when the women do convene they end up talking about that male character.

Does your favorite movie pass the Bechdel test? Is it important to you that it does? Obviously it’s not necessary for every film, but it would be nice to see films outside of certain genres, or outside of the “chick flick” realm of films targeted directly at women, where two female characters talk to each other about things that concern them besides men.

XXXVII. Provence

postcards from france

A group of us out for an all-night downtown street party Aix. If you’re energetic enough to stay out late, this city reveals its international side in its student nightlife; French is mixed in with English, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, German, and various Eastern European languages. In spite of the melting pot, we American women always seem to attract the most attention---half of it based on the idea that we’re easy to sleep with, half for other reasons. In a country known for its stick-thin women, my friend Anna often stands out for her big-boned Iowan frame. Tonight, she finds herself the target of a 20-something Frenchman, spurred on by booze and his friends’ laughter as he makes slurred, belligerent remarks about the size of Anna’s shirt. She doesn’t look at him or reply and we all try to ignore it at first, continuing to talk to each other more loudly than before. But something snaps for me.

You can fuck right off, I turn and hiss at him in French. His eyes widen and he takes a stumbled step backward. My angry defense is just as much for me as for Anna. Five years of silent frustration for being treated like an idiotic piece of meat on account of a set of ovaries and a foreign accent pours out in a string of acidic, vulgar phrases that I’ve known for years but never actually said to anyone. Whether it’s the ferocity in my voice or the surprise of being talked back to, the guy stops speaking and quickly walks away.

Amidst a chorus of OOH’s from my friends, none of us so sober ourselves, the memory of writing down swear words flickers through my mind---sitting in the small kitchen in Normandy with Madeleine spelling the sentences out for me, word for word. I’m glad her teaching didn’t go to waste.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading arianna

On a mission to manifest ease, Ariana Pritchett works with creative entrepreneurs and change agents to get out of the overwhelm and cut the excess that is keeping them stuck.  She believes that in order to do great work and make big impact one must reduce the busy and hone the area of genius unique to you.  In her latest project, Launch Sessions she pairs up with designer and friend, Katrina McHugh, to simplify solo-preneur start-up through a four-week business launch program.   You can find her attempting to quiet the crazy all while being a mom, wife, business owner, sister, friend, urban farmer and amateur interior stylist.  For more on her and her crazy crew check out her blog.

After grad school I made a commitment to only read material that satisfied my soul and made me itch to turn the next page. Alas juggling a new child and business start-up meant that I found most of these satisfying page-turners at the magazine stand of the local grocer.

This commercial consumption continued for a few years until my friends joined forces and started a book club. At first I assumed book club would be an excuse to have dinner and chat about our lives, little did I know it would keep me on my literary toes and stimulate my mind, heart, and spirit.

What I love most about book club is that I read books I would never have thought to pick up. Our eight member group rotates hosts once a month, giving each of us an opportunity to make a book selection of our choosing.

The books have run the spectrum from fiction and non-fiction to classics and contemporary.  There has been so much food for thought, but of the over 45 books we have read these are the top 4 that are still with me long after the last page is turned.

1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – Storytelling at its finest. An intersection of characters on the streets of 1970s New York, reminding me that above all we just want to be seen and loved.

2. We the Animals by Justin Torres – A family of boys who push the Lord of the Flies envelope of what it means to be civilized.

3. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – One of the classics following a quiet man of character as the protagonist with whom I couldn’t help but fall in love.

4. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers – Poetic and profound this is a war tale that reminded me once again the line between good and evil is not clear.

The five runners up are:

1. Olive Kitteridge

2. The Sense of an Ending

3. Zeitoun

4. Born to Run

5. Freedom

Anna Comnena: Byzantine Princess, Crusades Chronicler

historical woman

I first became acquainted with this historical woman of the day because she was one of the only sources for describing a bunch of historical men. Isn’t that the way the historical cookie always crumbles?

Anna Comnena (1080 – c. 1153) was a Byzantine princess, the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus I, and an eyewitness chronicler of the First Crusade and some of its most prominent Crusaders. In fact, it was her dad that invited those European macho men out East in the first place. It goes like this:

A SUPER SHORT SUMMARY OF THE FIRST CRUSADE Seljuk Turks were expanding out of Central Asia and into what we now know as the Middle East. The Byzantine Empire (Greek Orthodox, concentrated in modern day Turkey, capital Constantinople) started getting nervous. Though loathe to request help from Western Christendom (you know, Europe), who were Catholic, and probably kind of a pain about it, Alexius Comnenus finally felt like he had no other options. “Come over here and help us out, guys,” he said to the Pope. “We’re all Christian brothers and stuff.”

Pope Urban II got excited, because as usual the Church was having a lot of problems in Europe, and having one big CAUSE tends to make problems disappear (or at least go temporarily invisible). So he made this big speech in 1095 and announced that everyone should go on Crusade to the Holy Land. Your soul would get saved, yada yada yada.

So Crusaders poured out of what is now France, and Germany, and England, and Italy, and walked/rode horses all the way to what is now Turkey, and some of them killed a lot of innocent people on the way in what were probably fits of zealotry and testosterone, and then the leaders got to Constantinople by 1097 and (mostly) pledged loyalty to Alexius. They had cool names like Godfrey and Baldwin and Bohemond. Anna provides descriptions of all of them in her chronicle.

But they really wanted to do other things besides just save the Byzantines. Like what was in it for them? So they poured into Syria and Palestine and set up Crusader castles and some of them stayed for like a hundred years or more (their progeny, of course. Though I do like to picture like the Indiana Jones guy sitting around in a fortress in the mountains crumbling to dust). Oh and they also killed more people.

The end. (Until the Second Crusade.)


Anyway. Anna provides the only Byzantine-eye view to this whole saga, in a chronicle she wrote of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. In this she reminds me of Dmitri Nabokov or Christopher Tolkien—forever in their father’s literary shadow, translating his old stuff, writing down reminiscences, safeguarding his estate. Celebrity fathers, ya know?

But Anna was more than just a woman who wrote about men that historians care about, though this is probably why her memory has been kept alive so long. She was also accomplished and educated, serving as a physician in a hospital her father had built for her, specializing in, apparently, gout.

She also had designs on the throne. At the age of fourteen she married Nicephorus of Bryennium, and as her father approached death, she conspired with her mother Irene to have her husband named the next emperor instead of her good-for-nothing brother John. However, she was outmaneuvered, and on his deathbed Alexius blessed John as his successor.

Later, she was busted for conspiracy to commit regicide or its twelfth-century Byzantine equivalent, and spent the rest of her life in a convent. This is where she hunkered down and wrote the Alexiad. Which ended up not being a bad use of her time.

So as a woman of the medieval Byzantine court, she was able to carve out an occupation, some expertise, a decent education (although she was forbidden from reading classical poetry because it was indecent), and even came thisclose to becoming Empress, courtesy her own ambition and wile. We don’t know a ton about her, but what we know is pretty impressive.

Though why do these stories always have to end in a convent?

Don't Forget Jerusalem

word traveler

Five days in Israel don’t seem a long time, and indeed they are not. Nonetheless, Israel State is quite small (barely bigger than New Jersey), so you don’t need weeks to visit the most important sites. The only essentials are a car (a GPS is unnecessary, directions are clear and easy so a good map will do) and lots of curiosity. As I prepared to come back to Milan, I started thinking about the best things I saw (or felt, or tasted), and I realized that when there’s too much on the table, it’s best to make a list to avoid forgetting. And this is definitely a trip I don’t want to forget anything about. So, not necessarily in order of importance, here’s my list.

1. Coexistence of many religions. As a Catholic, what I felt wasn’t only the spirit of my own religion; it was a universal feeling, of acceptance, of struggle and hope. More than a pilgrimage to the roots of Catholicism, I thought I was learning a very important lesson about many ancient faiths.


2. Oranges and lemons. Juices are not cheap (life isn’t cheap in general, mostly as costly as in Italy, or at least this was my impression), but for the equivalent of $4/$5 you can get the most flavorful juice. I found it very helpful after a long day wandering in heat, or even for breakfast. It gave me the energy and the salts I needed.
3. Feeling that you are part of something historic and important. It’s not easy for foreigners to understand what living in Jerusalem means, and what being a part of those religions’ history is. Struggle, triumph, being a victim or a victor. Longing for peace and compromise for it. Places that belong to everyone and are equally important to everyone.
4. Old city shopping. How good it feels to just wander around inside the Old City walls. After the first day there, I was happy–I was actually able to find the same places again, and it felt like a victory! From Muslim to Christian to Jewish symbols, the challenge consists of getting past the more touristy places and looking for the hidden corners. So, instead of buying any memento along the Via Dolorosa, with its countless souvenir shops, I bought candles and rosary beads in the ancient site where Jesus was kept imprisoned, a cave below the ground level where taking pictures is forbidden, and at least I felt that I was contributing a little to the site’s maintenance.
5. Real hummus. How delicious! Abu Shukri restaurant was suggested on the guide (I rely on Fodor’s, the best!) as the place where they make the best hummus in town, and it definitely was. It’s in the heart of the Old City, and while it lacks in decor, it has a local clientele that confirms its superior quality. I got hummus with pine nut, and Husband opted for hummus with . . . hummus (chickpeas).
6. Friday night walk. On Friday nights, the city is full of life. We walked to the Western Wall, and this is what we found. Families gathered in prayers and children chanting all together.
7. The parades of monks, nuns and other religious types in their various robes and hoods.
8. The zest for life. Jerusalem is not only what you see inside the walls of the Old City; outside the walls it’s a very young and vibrant place, full of life, restaurants and shops. As far as I could see, the best time to enjoy the pulse of life is on Thursday nights. Listening to live music and watching dances on the street while eating shawarma (a mix of meats wrapped in pita bread, so yummy) was relaxing and fun. On Fridays nights instead, everything is closed, as the population gets ready for Shabbat, the day of rest. So don’t expect to find anything opened on Saturday morning. The only place we found for breakfast was a service area on the highway, on our way to Nazareth, and it was packed!

This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course. It’s inadequate, incomplete. And it’s only about Jerusalem. All of the other places we saw (Bethlehem, Nazareth, Tiberias, Haifa) deserve their own lists. I am looking forward to another trip there, I feel like there’s so much more to learn.

Information vs. Overload

If I retained one thing from my high school economics class, it was the concept of diminishing marginal utility. Apparently, the pizza analogy really captured my attention. It went something like this (please forgive this former English major if she is totally botching it): You stop into a pizza shop for lunch and buy yourself a slice. You are really hungry, and that slice is incredible. It is worth way more to you than the three dollars you spent on it. You decide to go for a second slice, which is also pretty satisfying and worth the price. By the time you’ve gone back for a third slice, you are feeling pretty neutral about it going down the hatch. After that point, additional slices equal pain, not pleasure, and they will no longer hold value for you (until lunchtime tomorrow).

Sometimes I wonder if this concept could be applied in some way to the problem of information overload. Imagine that the product is information and the cost is the time spent consuming it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened a browser in search of information or inspiration, only to find later that I’ve taken in more than I really needed or wanted, or spent too much valuable time, well, “browsing.” Depending on the question I’m trying to answer or how I’m feeling on a given day, there is a certain point at which the amount of information I’m taking in is no longer worth the time I’m spending consuming it. Unfortunately, it can be such a challenge to acknowledge when I’ve hit that point and release myself from the vortex of the screen.

There’s another challenge, which has to do with the intersection of the quality of the information we encounter, the order in which we encounter it, and our energy levels at various points throughout the day. For example, if I come across an incredibly beautiful and inspiring essay—exactly the sort of essay I had been looking for—at the very end of the day, I am probably too tired to really enjoy and process it. On the other hand, if I have spent the first precious hours of the morning flipping through a near-stranger’s endless collection of vacation photos, perhaps the quality of the information consumed was not equal to the nature and quantity of the time spent on it.

Many services and applications are coming up with welcome possibilities to help us manage the fire hose of information. Increasingly powerful search engines bring us closer to finding what we’re really looking for, and various forms of curation and personalization help bring content that may have more value to our attention first. Still, I often feel as though it really comes down to me, my browser, and my will power. Even a genius search engine and a fabulous curator can’t tell me when enough is enough, those extra slices are just giving me a stomach ache, and one more article is only going to tip the scale of my time in the wrong direction. There is enough incredible information in this world to fill lifetimes; it’s up to me to decide how much of it I can really handle in this one.