Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Great Nanny Crop-Out

Babysitting the other night, after the tyke fell asleep I leafed through two celebrity-focused magazines belonging to the mom. Each had a photo that struck me as surprisingly creepy: in one, Heidi Klum, her kids, and another woman are walking down a street. But the woman, who trails the others, has her head neatly a box of text. In the second, Sarah Jessica Parker is described as walking with her twins. But she holds the hand of only one; the other is holding hands with a woman who walks behind the actress, and while most of the woman's face is obscured by Parker's head, she looks into the camera with her left eye.

The editors' choice to crop out nannies from celebrity photographs - and for many celebrity moms to present their lives as child care-free - has been written about well in other places. What interests me is the pervasive psychology of breezily commenting on the famous person's every move while not acknowledging the visible presence of the woman in the background.

A head eclipsed by words, a lone, staring eye: these would be strange (or comical) editing choices in any publication. But in a celebrity magazine, where all that matters is the famous person, the nanny (or other accidentally photographed staff) is viewed as so inconsequential that hastily or mostly cropping her out is considered good enough. Who's looking at her anyway?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

If You Don't Like This Word...

I get together with friends every two weeks to talk about art: pieces we're working on, questions we're grappling with, etc. Last night, one of my friends told us that he's reading Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way but that he was initially uncertain if he would read it because the word "God" is used frequently, and he wasn't sure if he was comfortable with that. He decided to keep going after reading the introduction; in it, Cameron suggests that people uncomfortable with "God" substitute any other word that means creative spirit or force.

I heard similar instructions a few years ago when attending someone's exit interview from in-patient rehab. I asked the counselor essentially, "How are they supposed to go to AA if they don't believe in God?" I was told that it could stand for "Good Orderly Direction" and that AA is a spiritual, not religious, organization.

Sometimes pushing past or reconfiguring meanings in order to learn skills or receive larger messages is understandable. Sometimes re-framing the debate makes politics clearer (or at least more entrenched)! And I don't want to dismiss the power of groups reclaiming names that previously were only uttered as invective. Language is amazing, people! But when other than with "God" do we need such thorough contextualizing and explaining for a broader way of seeing, whether it's Cameron's creative force, Alice Walker's ecospirituality, or many Unitarian Universalist sermons? When else are we told, "Oh, just think of another word for that"?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What's in a Religious Name?

I attend University Unitarian Church and have been doing so since 2002. I was not raised UU, and my comfort with labeling myself a UU has varied over the years. One of UU's guiding principles is the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning," and, well, sometimes it seems like my search is free, responsible, and endless.

In the latest issue of our church newsletter, there's an article by the Youth Program Coordinator about upcoming program changes. One section in particular stands out for me:

In spite of being raised all their lives in the church, the high school youth I work with struggle in talking about their faith and they are jealous of their Christian and Jewish counterparts who have seemingly easy religious answers. Unfortunately, our ambivalence about religion keeps us from giving our kids what they want and need. My fear is that if we don't meet this need, we will lose them to other faiths or, worse, to no faith at all.

For those who aren't familiar with Unitarian Universalism, it is a non-creedal religion that is incredibly welcoming. Like I mentioned above, we have guiding principles - not doctrines. Indeed, the "About Unitarian Universalism" page of UUC's website acknowledges a spectrum of belief: "Some UUs consider themselves Christian. Many UUs would also describe themselves as Buddhist or Jewish. Other members are attuned to earth-centered spirituality and religion. UUs may also use the terms humanist or atheist to describe themselves."

But when you invite so many different beliefs under the same tent, there are bound to be tensions. Can we name ourselves any way we wish as long as we come to church? If, like the newsletter article says, it's "worse" to have "no faith," are Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Pagan or Humanist-UUs all better than Atheist-UUs?

And about those teenagers. I have volunteered in one way or another with UU youth since 2004, and I have seen the kind of children a UU church (and its "ambivalence") raises: compassionate, curious, joyful, humorous, intelligent ones with a wide range of personal beliefs. Could we practice more unified beliefs and traditions so that any UU, of any age, would "struggle" less when discussing the UU faith? Yes...but how do you go about choosing among the strands? "We seek wisdom from all sources" - again, the "About UU" page
" - contemporary and ancient poets, the Bible, Buddhist texts, Native American religion, and many other practices and faiths."

Of course some of the high school students are "jealous" of "seemingly easy answers" - it is difficult to concisely explain UU's plurality, especially in a sound bite-loving age. And if the answers we speak of aren't to questions like, "What is UU?" but instead, "What happens when we die?" then this jealousy is all the more understandable; injustice and loss and simply being a thinking person are hard work. But easy answers are often untrue, and the UU youth are smart and know that.

Last fall I attended a meeting at which one of our ministers asked someone, "If you don't identify as a UU, why are you here?" It might sound obvious when written, but it was jarring to hear. I'm here because this is my community, and I thought I was welcomed on my search for truth and meaning. I didn't know that the labels in my mind would be policed as I explored.

In my congregation, it sometimes feels like we are politely at war over our direction. We should always keep in mind principle # 5, "The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large." Whichever ways we go, we have to trust our youth - even when they choose no faith at all.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Facebook Monopoly

Yesterday I was reading the Seattle P-I website when I noticed an article titled, "Has Facebook killed your urge to attend a school reunion?" (The headline did not capitalize all the letters, so neither do I :). At the end of the piece you could share your thoughts on the matter by voting. Choices include, "No way! I'm organizing a reunion right now on Facebook!" and "Yes, because I've already seen how weird my classmates became!" But among the six choices there was no option to say, "No, because I am not on Facebook."

And that is how I would have voted.

I was on Facebook, relatively briefly: once, in 2007 or 2008, for a few months, and again from July 2009 until May 31 of last year. I decided to leave - and not just to leave but to join others on the official Quit Facebook Day - because I didn't like the time I was wasting; I disagreed with how privacy decisions were handled; and I didn't like the vaguely stalker-ish impulses it could breed. But the biggest reason I left was that I didn't actually feel more connected with anyone other than very nice or funny acquaintances. The act of widely broadcasting my emotions - and reading other people's broadcasts - made me feel distant from actual friends and family. Even when people weren't trying to perform their relationships, the interface often gave them the look of performance. Very little was personal; I felt like a circumstantial audience member, not an intentionally selected recipient of information.

I do miss my friends' baby photos sometimes, but that's about it.

Lately though it feels like there are wider-reaching participatory repercussions to my decision to leave than just being the last to see the new kid's picture. It's not just that not being on Facebook is apparently inconceivable to some, as in the P-I article. For some businesses, organizations, or events, the only way to place an order, contact someone, or make your voice heard now is via Facebook. You can't even vote on a name for the Woodland Park Zoo's new reticulated python without going to Facebook.

I'm all for Facebook as a choice. But if you're operating in the public sphere, it seems short-sighted at best to limit in any way the number of people who can give you their money, time, or opinions.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Casting Couch in My Mind

I am unable to read a short story or novel without imagining the characters as real people. In a newspaper article, I can read about Dr. X from institution Y without pausing, but in a book I would have to decide she was Alfre Woodard before I could continue.

Many times a character is introduced before he or she is fully described; then I have to cast as best as I can, sometimes stopping later on to re-envision. But sometimes I just ignore elements of the author's description if I feel that my choice captures the essence of the character. For instance, in my favorite book from 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I cast Gillian Jacobs (best known as Britta on Community) as one of the central characters, Sasha, even though the character has red hair and the actress doesn't. Can I just dye the actress's hair in my mind? Um, no - not unless I've seen her in a role with red hair.

This process might sound cumbersome - or crazy! - but usually takes less than a minute and isn't confined to famous people; if a friend, co-worker or family member fits the part best, that person gets the role. When I worked at an after school program, those kids populated any stories with children. And now that I don't know as many kids, well, let's just say that the girls from "Nurse Jackie" have had lots of work.

I've found articles and blog posts fiercely debating the casting choices for a beloved book-turned-movie. (See "The Hunger Games" for a recent example). But I'm not finding picks for books with no immediate film plans, which makes me wonder: is this visualization practice common, but we only hear, "I always saw Robert Downey Jr. in the role," when Hollywood gets involved? Or is it relatively rare?

There are teacher guides and scholarly articles commending visualization as a reading comprehension tool. But those count "visualization" as imagining anything in the text, from setting to vocabulary. The need for actual people to populate stories isn't involuntary, so it's not synesthesia. But what is it?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Six Degrees of I Know Someone Famous

I took a creative writing class in college with this guy. I had an adolescent correspondence with a becoming-famous author. And, creme de la creme, something I said (or my boisterous laugh) made this person swivel on his stool and smile at me in a Dean and Deluca.

And that's just me: a friend took a cooking class with a Hughesian actress; my parents inherited a garden plot from the wife of this Munster; and my mother's ex-husband's wife once went on a date with this new retiree.

None of those stories even involved getting on the Internet! Don't get me wrong - it's thrilling when an author or an actor answers my emails. But do we still rank highest the sightings, shared courses and chance interactions with famous people?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Good Old 1995

My parents have been mailing me boxes of my stuff from high school and college on and off for almost a year now; they moved back to Connecticut in June 2010 and, though they now have a huge basement, still (understandably) would like me to take possession of that which is mine. So. Boxes.

I have unearthed some treasures: articles from Parade magazine on the "cyberspace" fight to save "My So-Called Life" from cancellation; a beloved cassette tape, "TV Hits Vol. II" from the Meadowbrook Pops Orchestra, featuring classic '80s shows (who doesn't want to listen to the theme song from "Murder, She Wrote" on demand?); and my first pair of glasses (huge frames!) But the overwhelming majority of space is filled with letters.

I attended the University of Virginia's Young Writers Workshop in Charlottesville in the summers of 1994 and 1995, and, in those early-email days, it was natural to write to new friends through the trusty U.S. Postal Service. I was 14 and 15 and prolific, and so were my friends from Pittsburgh; St. Petersburg, FL; Brookline, MA; Ridgewood, NJ; and beyond. We may have only spent 3 weeks together in the same space, but some of us wrote to one another for years.

I love those letters now, both for their often-quirky, handmade, collaged envelopes and for the high school obsessions detailed within, but it also makes me sad to read them. A lot hadn't happened yet in 1995, including the deaths of two close friends and three of my grandparents. I'm no longer in as frequent or meaningful of contact with any of those people: college, significant others, jobs and new friends intervened. And in many cases we've just grown apart.

I'm not sure what you call it when you keep lots of things, pages and pages, that you can't bear to look at for very long, but that's what I'm doing. I'm an archivist, and I want to be able to remember Bug and Chris and Emily and Dave and everyone else, as they were.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Forgetful Children

It happened again last week: I was openly snubbed in public. But this wasn't someone I actively dislike; this was a middle school-aged boy on the Metro who looked straight into my eyes and smiling face and showed no sign of recognition. Thanks, Carl!

Some background: five years ago, I finished a four year run as an activity counselor at a Boys and Girls Club after school program. This equaled three hours each day and eight during winter, spring and summer breaks. Modestly, I estimate that I spent hundreds of hours a year with many of those kids - helping with homework, reading Captain Underpants books, playing tag, and comforting them when they were frustrated, lonely or hurt.

When I left the Club, Carl made a Mad Lib about *me* as a going away present - one of the best gifts I've ever received from a kid. But he was maybe eight then, and now he's basketball player-tall, probably 13, and that was a long time ago. I wasn't disappointed or even surprised last week when he didn't know who I was; I've seen the same blank expression on other buses, in parks, and in stores in the years since I stopped working with those kids. I know a lot of other people have entered and exited their lives since they last saw me. And I know there are exceptions, ones who remember my face and sometimes even my name.

Still I never stop feeling amazed at how all those hours of drawing, snacking, and playing kickball were wiped away for many of them. Old people have Alzheimer's; what do we call this particularly young affliction?