Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lost Landscapes of Detroit, My Sometime Home

To remember is, in most cases, to access a small fraction of one's actual cache of memories, to cycle through the same small repertoire of mental images that are made to stand in for an infinitude, all of which you could not possibly keep on the front burner of consciousness. When I think of my grandma, I first remember one "shot" of her using a strange double-bladed instrument to chop cabbage in a wooden bowl that she held in the crook of her arm. That is my stock image of her, one that I remember so often that the act of remembering it has become part of the memory itself. The many "rememberings" make me doubt whether this memory ever actually happened. I feel like I conjured it, perhaps combining something real with something I saw on television. Thinking of that image now doesn't feel like remembering any more; it feels like iterating a mental ritual that I created long ago to serve some emotional need.

For me, a truthful, authentic act of remembering involves a memory that's on the back burner of consciousness -- when some word or smell or dream suddenly plucks something discrete out of the subconscious memory soup and I think, "Yes! I do remember that!" It feels at once new, because I never "remembered" it before, and old, because it could have been lost forever; I feel joyful, more whole to have this extra piece of my hazy past made suddenly clear, without the warping, muddying layers of many rememberings. But then it too becomes part of the memory repertoire (perhaps displacing something else!), and when I access it again, I want not just to see the image but to feel the same joy of discovery. Perhaps I do summon that feeling for a bit at first, but soon it becomes like the other memories -- well-worn, refracted, distorted.

I had such an experience earlier this week at the Internet Archive's screening of Lost Landscapes of Detroit, a compilation, edited by Rick Prelinger, of early to mid-twentieth century home movies made by Detroiters. The project eschews nostalgia; it is more a human, idiosyncratic, anthropological way of considering a people's history of Detroit. 

(A still from the film.)

The film itself has no sound, except for about a minute at the beginning. Instead, as Prelinger says, the audience creates the soundtrack, identifying, as they watch, the sites they see, commenting, asking questions, telling jokes, debating each other -- all facilitated by Prelinger, who is helpful, insightful, but never overbearing. Since so much of the evening is about preserving, archiving, I had the strange urge while I was there to also record everything the audience was saying.

I didn't expect to connect to the film. I was born right outside of Detroit, but I moved away just before I turned 11. I've been back only a few times since, though I annually visit relatives who live elsewhere in Michigan. When I think of memories of the city itself, I can summon only the most obvious places -- the Fisher Theatre, the Renaissance Center -- places that are far from being "lost landscapes."

So I was surprised to see what happened to me with footage and mention of a place called Bob-Lo Island. At first, I thought, "What a silly name." Then it was, "Wait, do I know that name?" Later it was, "Wait, have I been there?" I suddenly had an image of myself on a ferry on the Detroit River on a cloudy day en route to a place with this name. And I do remember telling people I'd been to Canada before, though, before this movie, I'd had no idea why I would say that. Bob-Lo island, I have since learned from the internet, is on the Canada side of the Detroit River; for decades it was an amusement park until it closed in 1993, making it feasible that I'd gone there as a child. 

(Bob-Lo, "the Coney Island of Detroit," in its heyday.)

I called my mother the day after the screening to ask her if I'd been there, but she said only that it was possible; she did know that she had gone there as a girl.

This might seem like a small thing to write a post about, especially since it doesn't relate to the mission of this site. But I believe that my generation has especially tenuous ties to the places and communities of our childhoods. I lived in three different regions of the country before I went to college. Then, between May of 2008 and May of 2010, I moved ten times. And this isn't just me, of couse: Since moving to San Francisco in 2009, over 10 of my friends have moved away. (I know, of course, that San Francisco is an especially expensive city, but that's not a negligble statistic!)

I have so many different and disconnected segments of my life that sometimes I feel like I've existed only since 2009. I have few things around me to remind me of the past -- few keepsakes, and few friends who knew me even as far back as college.

This encounter with Bob-Lo, a lost memory, a lost landscape, makes me feel like my twenty-seven years happened and counted after all, despite the lack of evidence, despite the fact that I've no one nearby to testify to their memory.

I feel I have lived many lives. 

Now, after many nomadic years, I'm working hard to make this most recent life a long-lasting one. I'm building a permanent home in San Francisco with the man I love. I remember that in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, she said that, no matter how many times  her family moved to a different faraway cabin, she always felt like it was home again once her mother's plate that said "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread" was unpacked and displayed. After years of living like a refugee -- in one apartment, for many months, I had neither mattress nor furniture, instead spreading my possessions on the floor as if they were toys -- I too am now accruing tangible pieces of a home.

My favorite piece of my past in this home is this photo, which features the same grandma of cabbage-chopping fame, Grandma Day, as she basks in the adoration of three different species, one of which is proudly represented by baby Lily:

Another I recently received in the mail as a surprise gift. It's a cookbook from my Aunt Julie (who, she would want me to mention, is also my godmother): 

The book features an astonishing store of old-skool Midwestern recipes, which is of course one wonderful gateway to things past, but for me, even more important is this Christmas inscription, which my Aunt Julie wrote to Grandma Day:

Which calls to mind both the inscriptions my grandma wrote in books she gave to me:

And the many Christmases at my grandma's house in which a young Lily first staged theatrical events for the rest of her family:

(That little window in the staircase, above the Christmas tree, was my very first stage. Look at that perfect proscenium arch!)

In case you couldn't tell, I've been thinking a lot about my grandma a lot lately. She took care of me five days a week for the first ten years of my life and then died just before my sixteenth birthday. She had a special nickname for me: "Louie the Liller," or "Lou" for short. (I think there was a song that went along with that, but now I can't remember it!) When the phone rang, she would mutter, "Oh, shit!" and then answer it with a singsong "Hel-lo!" When we played Scrabble, she took no mercy on my youth, gleefully slaughtering me by a hundred-point margin. And night after night, when even at a young age I could never sleep, I would watch from my bed for the light to go out in the crack underneath her door, which meant I could tiptoe across the hall and crawl into bed with her.

I've been thinking about the ways I idealize her. Because of a burn accident in her youth, my grandma had big scars on her neck, which got her ridiculed mercilessly as a little girl. (I still remember the name of her girlhood nemesis: Jacqueline Spalding.) Because of that, she never, ever, ever criticized or even teased anyone and inculcated in her children and grandchildren the value in doing the same. 

I recently spent a week, as an experiment, trying to practice that value, but I realized that I'm just not like her in that way. I'm a professional critic, first of all, which means I don't just criticize; I make my living (or at least my milk money) from criticizing. More fundamentally, I have a restless compulsion to make jokes, many at others' expense, and I've inherited from my mother and her side of the family (who get shortchanged in this essay; sorry guys, you'll get your due another day) a desire to get at the unvarnished truth of people and ideas. The Lovings, of which I am a proud member, are fearless (some might call it tactless) in discussing those truths in the bluntest of terms.

My new task is to be at peace with my differences from Grandma Day, this woman who gave me so much of who I am and has now left me to build with it what I will.

Thank you, Internet Archive, Lost Landscapes of Detroit, Bob-Lo Island, and Aunt Julie, for serving me Proustian madeleines that sent me down this memory lane. Now that I've spent all this time with the past, it's time to recommence the job of living in the present -- but with a renewed, stronger sense of self.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Witch House, at the Garage

(Photo by Kelly Puleio.)

I was very pleased to be able to support this show, now playing at one of the most Fringey venues in SF, the Garage, which perhaps more than any other space in the Bay Area is dedicated to new artists and experimentation. I love the fact that artistic director Joe Landini gives artists a place to develop new work from scratch and to perform it -- a galling rarity. I also love the fact that the space shows something different every single weekend; unfortunately, that means that it's usually difficult for me to cover it. One of the peculiarities of working for a weekly newspaper is that our print schedule favors and often demands shows with longer runs. That has the problematic effect of making it look like shows with longer runs, which tend to come from wealthier companies, are the only shows I think are worth covering. That isn't so. So I'm redoubling my efforts to get work by those smaller companies in print, or, at the very least, online.

I saw The Witch House yesterday, and even after reading the script and interviewing the playwright and director, I found a lot of the show, about three boys who get possessed by Abigail Williams and other Salem Witch Trial accusers, difficult to follow. The show features abrupt shifts into the surreal that only get more surreal as time passes. But I was pleased to see that much of the comedy came to full, rich life in the transfer from page to stage, and that the performers tackled their challenging parts with total commitment. The women's chorus, even as their words confused, made abstraction bewitching.

The Witch House continues through Jan. 27 at The Garage; info here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hi, blog. Also, Troublemaker at Berkeley Rep. Also, on spoilers.

(Freakin-A! Photo by Kevin Berne.)

I don't think I said enough in my review of Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, at Berkeley Rep, about how much I appreciated the way this show deals with its main character's transformation. Playwright Dan LeFranc and director Lila Neugebauer shortchange nothing. A bildungsroman about problem child Bradley (Gabriel King), the play never "establishes" that Bradley is a troubled kid. It lets him stew in his trouble; it lets him get worse before he gets better, so much worse that I wondered whether he could get better. And when he does start to clear up his prideful adolescent myopia, the play does 't subject us to a bunch of well-made-play bullshit that ties up every little loose end. It takes a lovely, unexpected turn into the surreal that quickly gets us to the good stuff: a halting but by no means perfect new start.

I'm concerned that my review conveys my enthusiasm by giving too much away.

The other day, I read Alessandra Stanley's  NYT review of season 2 of Girls. Later, when I watched the first episode of the new season, I was dismayed to find that Stanley had given away all the episode's best jokes. I still enjoyed the episode, of course, but at each already revealed punch line, I found myself unfavorably comparing the actor's delivery with the way I'd imagined the line and then disappointed and frustrated that I hadn't experienced the moments as they were meant to be experienced.

This made me think about spoilers in my own reviews. I've typically thought that avoiding spoilers meant not giving away the "who" in the whodunit, or sharing a show's main reveal or surprise, or in general allowing my plot summary to cover the later scenes of a play. But I wonder now if "spoilers" can apply to many other and smaller aspects of a show. Should I not have mentioned the neon glove? I ruled in favor of it because the press photo (see above) shared it. But I didn't mention (spoiler alert!) the goons' matching outfits, even though that choice could be gleaned from photos as well, because I thought it was just too delightful a surprise, and I'd already written a ton (well, for me) about the costumes.

It's hard to discern what a "spoiler" is because giving away any part of a show could "spoil" that aspect of it. Is there always a huge difference between a spoiler and an evocative detail? I don't want to inspire delight in my reader by robbing those delights directly from a show; at the same time, it's my task as a critic to make my reader feel what I feel. So where's the line? I guess I'll stick with the above rule of thumb but also use a kind of strict scrutiny for jokes or moments of theater magic.

Or instead I could just write better.

Troublemaker continues through Feb. 3 at Berkeley Rep; info here.

Teaching and Learning

(Come on, baby. 2 more!)

Within a pretty short span of time, I have been a college student, a graduate student, and a teacher of college students. Being a teacher makes me see how I could have been a better student, and having recently been a student, I hope, makes me a better teacher. I think constantly about how I could improve my instruction, and how I wish I could have improved my own education. In lieu of obsessively checking whether enough students have enrolled for me to actually have a class next semester (now you know how teachers spend their time off), I’ve decided to post those thoughts.

For students:
  • Review your professor’s syllabus thoroughly before you ask him or her a question.
  • Technology deadens live interaction. Don’t use your cell phone during class — or, in almost all cases, your computer. It disengages you from class discussion. It distracts you; don’t pretend like you never look at the internet during class. Even more importantly, it’s rude. Maybe in your peer group, it’s considered socially acceptable to have your eyes glued to a screen and your thumbs typing away while you’re having a live conversation, but your professors come from an older generation (ha, look at me, talkin about how old I am) in which such behavior is definitely not acceptable. And even if your professors are younger (as I am, for the time being), you’re showing them that as a student, you’re not willing to do one bit of work in your own education. You’re asserting that your showing up should be sufficient contribution from you. Put a moratorium on electronics during class. It’s just healthy.
  • Go to your professor’s office hours. Most of the time, nobody comes, and your professor is just sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. You don’t have to have something urgent or brilliant to ask — if you have to, you can come up with any old question as a pretext for meeting. Either way, it’s worth getting over your intimidation and laziness. You and your teacher will be able see each other as human beings instead of catatonic listener vs. incessant babbler. And in the course of your conversation, you’ll get a chance to ask about all those things you didn’t understand in class but might have forgotten about until your meeting. At those meetings, it’s your job to show your teacher that you care, which you do just by showing up, and it’s your teacher’s job to help you see that yes, you really can succeed in the class even though it’s challenging. My students who come to meet with me do better on the whole than those who don’t.
  • If you need to ask for an extension on an assignment, follow these rules: 1.) Ask in advance. 2.) Ask in writing. 3.) State when you’ll have the assignment completed. 4.) If you provide an excuse, which usually won’t help your case anyway unless there’s a hospitalization or a funeral, don’t go into detail. Your professor doesn’t need to know about your vaginal issues. (Multiple students have foisted such information on me.) 5.) Write with a tone of humility. You are entitled to nothing.
  • Using more than three of someone else’s words in a row without citing your source is plagiarism. Yup, three’s your max. That’s it. More importantly, your professor looks at the Wikipedia and SparkNotes entries on the subjects of your papers. If you’re following the letter of the plagiarism rule but not the spirit — i.e., you’re changing just the right number of words around — you’re still not going to get a good grade.
  • Be conscious of your professor’s time. Many students like to grab professors after class, and if that time is not the professor’s designated office hours, don’t expect to be able to talk to him or her for minutes on end, especially if many of your peers are also waiting. Visit office hours or make an appointment.
  • Professors remember students who hazard a response to a question no one else wants to answer. Don’t worry if your idea is crazy, or if you have to answer a question with a question. Your classmates will be even more grateful to you than your professor will be.
  • In general, make your interactions with your professor professional. The class is where you work; your professor is your boss. So don’t sign your emails “xoxo” or “love ya.”

For teachers:
  • Never spend more time grading a paper than a student spent writing it. 
  • If you collect papers electronically, check to make sure you can open all attachments within 24 hours of students turning them in.  
  • While of course the focus of your teaching is your students, look at your class as an opportunity for you to learn as well. If you teach the same course multiple times, change a unit or a reading assignment. It’ll keep you on your toes, and you’ll remember what it’s like to learn something.        
  • You’re probably only going to have all your students’ undivided attention a few times during any individual class session. Learn to recognize those times and improvise during them; you can’t afford to waste them, so learn to be flexible regarding when you state or emphasize your most important points. 
  • Admit it when you’ve made a mistake or lost an argument. Your behavior in those difficult moments can sometimes teach your students more than your most incisive insights will. 
  • Fail students when they deserve it.       
  • Establish all your policies, for tardy work, etc., before the semester starts, and sound very stern with them on the first day of school. But don’t be rigid for the sake of being rigid. You and your students are humans, and human things happen. 
  • Before each class session, do what you need to do to get yourself into the teaching zone. Maybe it’s running; maybe it’s meditating. I always have to do a few things – Write out all the points I’m going to make and practice by giving a speed-lecture from those notes; then, during the actual class, I don’t really have to use those notes. Last, I spend a few moments tricking myself into thinking I have confidence. If I don’t take the time to do these things, the class doesn’t go as well as it could. 
  • Don’t blame yourself when your students look bored, distracted, or comatose. You have no idea what their lives are like outside your classroom walls. Your job isn’t to blow everyone’s minds every session; it’s to teach the ones who are willing to meet you halfway. You don’t have to baby anyone. This isn’t high school.