Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Mother / My Self

They say home is where the heart is – or where it longs to be.
Or maybe, home is where the food is.
Or possibly home is where the mother is.
Likely, it’s all three.

In Zami, Audre Lorde connects home to a place she’s never seen, a place her mother dreams of filled with smells and tastes of mango and limetrees and spices and chocolate in a tea tin. Denise Chavez connects home to tacos, particularly and incessantly, and to her mother’s presence in a tiny house with a blue-filled room. For James McBride, home is confusing, split, sometimes here and sometimes there, but always where his mother resides.

Mother and food and heart – the three are entwined in ways far more tightly than the connections to fathers, which seem somehow not nearly as intimate though no less strong and full of love / memory / heart. How is it that our lives get tangled into the lives and dreams and food of our mothers? What necessary connection between the womb and our movement through the world? Freud was on to something.

When I think of my mother, images of her in the kitchen spring to mind most readily – or over a campfire, or strapping pot roast to the underside of our car on a road trip through the desert. It’s all about the food, isn’t it? Unlike Chavez, my food memories / mother memories do not center around any one type of food. No, in my memories my mother is always cooking something different, something she saw on The Galloping Gourmet or read in Julie Childs’ cookbook, or finagled out of a friend. My first dinner party: I was 10 years old and invited my friends over to cook pizza. They’d never cooked pizza; for me, it was what we did – my mother, myself, adding vegetables and cheese to flattened home-made dough.

Mother / home / food. Is there a way to dissect these three concepts, to break them apart? Or are they forever melded, held together by blood?

My mother / my heart / myself / home – 419 Hermosa Dr. NE. My mother grew up in that house, I spent my summers there from the time I was too young to have memories. And the food I remember in that house is cinnamon toast, covered with buttery sweetness on both sides.

Home is the sound of my mother’s laughter, and her voice a year before she died telling me she loved me – a message I listen to and save again each time I get a voicemail – mixed well with the taste of chicken cacciatore and filtered through memories of the Thanksgiving meal she created one year with my much-older boyfriend. Their voices arguing over how exactly to stuff mushrooms correctly drift through my heart and through my memories of the year I moved out of my childhood home for good.


If I close my eyes, she returns home, and I hear the tinkling of ice in her tea glass, swirling round and round as she stirs, sitting at the kitchen table.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Religious Extremism by any other name...

Hmmm. If the argument against the Muslim community center / mosque at Ground Zero is that building it would be disrespectful to all the people who died there at the hands of a few "Islamic extremists," then by golly it sure seems like building a cathedral anywhere in Spain or England ought to cause outrage. Thousands died in those countries at the hands of those claiming to be Christian - ever hear of the Inquisition? Or Bloody Mary?

To say nothing, of course, of the Crusades through the 'bible lands;' using the above logic, then, no Christian places of worship should be built - or exist at all - in any of those countries.

I'm not even going to try to be poetic or profound here. All I have to say is what a bunch of crap.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

Wrote this for a class, thought it might be interesting if anyone wants to know more about the movie. See entire film here or on a PBS station near you.

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

What happens when “two ordinary guys” from Queens decide to follow in the footsteps of one of the most (in)famous travelers in history? Two years of adventure, danger, frustration, sometimes boredom, sometimes joy, and ultimately an exploration of both the far distant past, and their own present.

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo is the truly captivating recounting of those two years. To say it is a recounting of the journey of a lifetime is quite literally true: it took Marco Polo 24 years to complete, from 1271-1295, and the two men’s journey is no less an epic adventure.

The documentary begins with a male voiceover, over a slightly Eastern-style music, reciting the names of exotic, far away places, overlaying still photos of what we assume might be images of those very places. Right away the film draws us in, asking “can you imagine all those places, the magical names, Samarkand, Bukhara, Beijing, Iran, Afghanistan…” and we step into the world of Francis O’Donnell and Denis Belliveau. As an opening it is quite effective, and as O’Donnell finishes naming the magical places, we get a shot of him talking in classic documentary interview format – to one side of the screen, speaking to someone we cannot see. The next voice we hear, again overlaying still images of more exotic places, is Belliveau’s, and again we cut to him and he speaks. This becomes a motif in this film – exotic, exciting images with a voiceover, then a cut to either O’Donnell or Belliveau speaking to an interviewer. I discuss later the effect this has as the film in the ‘present,’ the men’s journey in their past, and Marco Polo’s journey in the 13th century begin to merge into one fluid moment that seems to have no bounds.

The images are lovely, indeed, and serene if only because they are still. Then, suddenly, the silence and our sense of wonder and maybe envy at this journey we know we are about to witness is shattered by the sound of gunfire, and a filmed firefight. The music stops, and Belliveau’s voiceover here speaks of their kidnapping, having an AK47 pointed at his head, and being sure he would die. “My family would never know what had happened to me out here, my body would never be found. And all for what?” This becomes yet another motif: the danger they faced more than a few times as they attempted to find traces of Marco Polo in places far from the present in many ways. Interwoven throughout are serenity and danger, stillness and movement. This theme carries through the entire movie, in much the same pattern.

All this happens before the credits. When the film proper starts, we begin to learn just what was worth risking their lives for.

The voiceover is female, which is at first jolting, unexpected. Where did O’Donnell and Belliveau go? Who is this woman and why is she telling their story? We never get a clear answer, and yet this third voice becomes an unseen narrator of the adventure the two men took, and we follow their path across continents and oceans with her as our guide. When we hear the men’s voice, we know we will see them speaking – when we hear her, we know we will hear more of their story. It was quite effective, and acted as a balance for what was in all other respects a very male-centered story.

Again, simply stupendous still images, some upbeat fitting music, and the female voiceover comes in to create the myth. She takes us far back into history and tells us about Marco Polo’s world. Again using still images, showing us what we assume are pictures of Marco Polo, the book he wrote about his adventures, she begins to connect the patterns from the opening sequence to what the film will be: history/today/adventure/history/today/adventure, ad infinitum. After Marco Polo’s greatness, she continues in her creation myth when she introduces O’Donnell and Belliveau. These men are ordinary, not scholars or historians, not connected to any university or group. This sets up what we need to know – what we have to believe – about the men to make their travel both more exciting, and more accessible. If they can do it, maybe we can, too.

Some classic documentary techniques are utilized.

• The creation of truth by the juxtaposition of voiceover and image – which may or may not actually be the thing or event being discussed at that moment.
• The use of still images to tell the story as the narrator and the two travelers tell it.
• The interview of the two travelers recounting the story as we see it unfold.
• Seemingly unstaged encounters and conversations with people along the way.
• No attempt to hide the camera.

Each of these added truth-value to the film.

One of the more unique elements of this film was the interweaving of past and present, and how this interweaving seemed to erase the boundaries between the two. Marco Polo’s adventure became O’Donnell and Belliveau’s adventure complete with in some cases encountering the very same customs, ruins, and one immense reclining Buddha. It became difficult to determine whose story we were following, and then comes the realization: it is all their stories, and ours as well.

Ultimately the message of this documentary was profound, yet it had less to do with walking through history than it does with looking to the future. Yes, the people these men encountered, and their customs, were exotic and exiting. Yes the landscape was unique, vibrant and at times life-threateningly hazardous. And yes, the ruins and statues Marco Polo saw 700 years before were still there, still touchable, and somehow a link to the past. But as the film comes to a close, the filmmakers step out of the past – both the ancient and the near – and move toward a future that can be just as wondrous.

Their journey comes to an end where it started, in Venice, and the last images we see are of their lives ‘today’ – the present of the film itself. O’Donnell is an artist living in Queens, and we see his work in vibrant color. Belliveau is married with children, and also still in Queens. Is all life, then, and all journeys, a circle? Do we end up where we started? And if so, have we become changed by our adventures on the way to that point?

Belliveau believes this is true. His last words sum up what this film both exposes, and holds close to its heart: As still images and short moments of video dissolve one into the next across the screen, Belliveau says, “I would say that most of the world is full of good people. There’s a lot more good people on the planet than bad.” The images keep coming. Closeups of men and women, boys and girls, all beautiful in a way that is beyond words – their faces shine. A trick of photography? Something we have learned along the way that makes this so? Or reality shining through?

O’Donnell’s voice fades in: “It’s easy to hate someone you never met. Travel is the enemy of bigotry.” And as we get now quick video clips of both of them encircled by those they met along the way – from monks to soldiers, from small boys to half-naked warriors, and from women in multi-colored veils to ancient men in shorts – all of them in essence embodying this message, O’Donnell says “Get out there. Meet them. They’re good.”

Indeed, this becomes the lesson.

To stay in one place is death to innovation, wonder, joy, and understanding. But to return home having experienced the world is a gift not only to ourselves, but to all those we touch with our stories.

This documentary was remarkable in many ways, not least because of the essential simplicity of the pieces that went into the creation of its whole. Simple, still images, interviews with only the two travelers, some video footage taken along the way, and three uniquely different storytellers whose voices filled in the blanks and wove history into the present. Somehow the film became more than the sum of its parts, and at the end we are left with a feeling of hope.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Men into Monsters

Today I saw a photo that made me both joyful, and unutterably sad. It was of a Palestinian man holding a baby aloft. The baby is bundled in a striped sweater and green pants, and is standing in the man’s hands as he holds them out in front of him. Both are laughing, and the baby’s arms are straight out from its body.

This photo and the emotions I felt, and the actions a ‘friend’ took when I posted a response to this photo on Facebook are emblematic for me of both what’s absolutely right and what’s terribly wrong in the world.

My first reaction was one of joy – my heart literally filled with joy when I looked at this man’s face, the little baby, the way the man held it with such love, the moment of happiness they shared. Unadulterated love, unmitigated and whole.

On the heels of that joy came a sharp sadness akin to despair. The fact that these were Palestinian people brings with it a hundred other associations, the most potent of which for me this morning was that in the world today, joy and happiness and fat little babies standing on outstretched arms can be obliterated, destroyed by hatred and ignorance.

I am not talking specifically of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I am not talking of the Middle East. I am not talking of today or yesterday or last year or the last decade, but of all of that time, and as far back into the past as people have been looking at each other and seeing anything other than themselves.

I look at this photo and I see people in a moment of joy, and I ache for the joy that is shattered every day, in all parts of the world, because people cannot see each other.

We – everyone, a generic ‘we’ – turn people into monsters and then send bombers to drop death into their midst. We call them heathen, infidel, terrorist, evil-doers, and thereby give ourselves license to kill. And we create hell from a distance and then don’t understand how this creates hatred in return.

I am astounded that death of any kind is acceptable, that war is seen as inevitable, that ever bigger and more lethal weapons are created and used to destroy cities, ancient art, history, families, people. Babies standing with outstretched arms on men’s hands.

Can it be simply that these people who condone this kind of death are unaware of what death looks like – the blood, the body parts, the screaming of those left alive? Can it be that they think the worth of a person is measured by their belief in a certain god or a way of living? Can it be that they believe in a cause so wholeheartedly that it does not matter whom they destroy on their way to a the desired goal? Can it be that they don’t see that for every lost parent, a child mourns?

All this was in my mind as I posted on Facebook a very simple statement about the photo, the baby, and how my day was made brighter by their existence. Less than an hour later, a ‘friend’ unfriended me. This person is Jewish. She believes that death is justly visited when it involves a ‘homeland’ she has never been to, clothed in a religion she was not born into. I don’t know if my post is why she decided I am no longer someone she wants to be associated with. I don’t actually care. The coincidence is too striking not to be noteworthy, and I suspect that, given her postings during the Israel/Gaza conflict last year, in which more than one thousand Palestinians died at the hands of the IDF, the fact that I found the smiles of these particular people in this particular picture beautiful, was abhorrent to her. I suspect it also frightened her. If she begins to think of them as people who love their children, they become harder to kill.

Maybe this is the whole point: that those who choose not to listen, who choose not to look at photos of men with children, who can think of ‘them’ as somehow other than ‘us’ can be so frightened by evidence of love that they need to turn their eyes away.

When will enough be enough? When will death and killing and destruction of lives be unacceptable to enough people worldwide to shift the balance, to make killing not a last resort, but a non-option?

How many babies looking with joy at their fathers, at their mothers, at their grandparents, need to die before the blood stops flowing? And when will mothers of children be able to see and understand that same love in an-other’s eyes, and not turn away?

I am often on the verge of despair.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Things Fall Apart

As I read this week’s readings for a class I am currently taking, which were all about rational choice, realism, and international war, I was unprepared for the overwhelming feelings of both despair and anger that washed over me.

So, let me rant polly-anna-ish for a moment, although typically I’m not a ‘let’s all just get along’ kind of person. However, just for now, I need to pretend that another way is possible.


As far as I can tell we - the world, the leaders who could make a difference if they only just stepped back and looked at the world a bit differently - are caught in old patterns and assumptions… for instance, the assumption that war is necessary, that war is an option and that empathy or some kind of humane-ness is possible when you’re destroying lives, livelihoods, civilizations, hope.

And where is the disconnect, and why aren’t more people talking about it, between thinking of nuclear weapons as unthinkable, but compartmentalizing land mines into being okay? How could either of them be considered more humane, more okay, than the other? How can a bullet that explodes someone’s head be conceived of as something ‘thinkable’ and ‘okay’ and somehow balanced against nuclear weapons as proof. “Nukes are bad, we’d never do that. This new conventional way to kill people, though… look how cool THIS is.”

Some say ‘well, war is really not okay, but it’s the world we live in,’ or some version of that. But, it turns out that war is, on some level, okay, acceptable, understood, expected. Because if war and all that goes with it – death, maiming, destruction of ancient monuments and new families – were really, truly unacceptable, we would find a way NOT to do it.

People spend thousands of hours, thousands of dollars, all kinds of effort and energy, figuring out how to kill each other better, more efficiently, more cheaply, more… humanely (it makes me cringe to write that). I keep thinking that all that money might be better spent for food, clothing, shelter, or… I don’t know… EDUCATION maybe. And the money spent on the studies about how better to kill people could instead be spent on studies about how to help them stay alive.

Rant over.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Screaming Radio

When did the left become so loud?

I have been listening to liberal radio for a long time, and have had a few people I liked a lot, and some not so much.

For a long time my faves were:

  • Stephanie Miller
  • Rachel Maddow
  • Thom Hartman
  • Randi Rhodes
  • Ed Shultz

Things have changed.


Stephanie Miller and her mooks (Jim Ward and Chris Lavoi) are wonderful, great fun and irreverent, and have some perspectives I wouldn't necessarily pick up on. Also, hey, they DON'T SCREAM at callers or at me. They and coffee in the morning get me going.

Rachel Maddow is simply stunning in every way. Intelligent, biting, funny, insightful, and she doesn't back down. She *also* DOESN'T SCREAM.

Thom Hartman has a wealth of knowledge, acknowledges people's points, interviews both right and left people, and seems to respect others. I infer this because he DOESN'T SCREAM either.

The last two?

Ed Shultz: I used to like his approach because I felt he was balanced, would listen to people, would give credit when others had a point even if he didn't agree. I agreed with much of what he had to say.

However, sometime in the last few months he seems to have gone off some personal, internal deep end and now thinks it's acceptable to SCREAM at his callers and belittle them and shout his own opinion over theirs.
Lost me as a listener.

Randi Rhodes: Took me a while to warm up to her. Originally I thought she was overbearing and rude. Then, she either calmed down or I learned to appreciate her - and I still think she's incredibly smart and has a lot of good things to say, and some great insights. When she was in New York with Air America she was pretty aggressive and loud with callers, and belittled them, and I didn't like it then and had stopped listening. After a short time on some Florida network and then on into a new venue, she calmed down and I listened a lot.

However somehow again lately she has begun belittling callers again, and has started REALLY yelling. Often she doesn't seem to get the nuances of what people are trying to say, which surprises me; she used to be better at seeing between the lines and behind the words. Case in point: this morning, talking with a poli-sci professor (so presumably he knows more than she does about his particular area of focus/interest) she yelled at him about why he was wrong about the news. He was trying to make the point that we turn on the TV to look for those people and venues (that we interpret as news) that will reinforce out own perception of the way the world works. She locked onto the fact that people don't understand what "news" is, and totally missed his point. His answer there, had she not yelled at him, might have been 'you're right, but that's not my point... let's say people think they're turning on the news... regardless of whether that's true, that's another subject. They think it's news, and they turn on that which reinforces their already held beliefs.' She would, likely, AGREE with that, but never got there because she SCREAMED over him.

When a person loses enough track of his/her own (un)importance or (lack of) wealth of knowledge about a subject enough to not acknowledge that someone else actually might know more than he or she does, and then SCREAMS over that person... sorry, Lost me as a listener.

Mike Meloy is as obnoxious as Glenn Back.
And Rush is unspeakably... well, words fail me.

That's all I have to say about screaming radio.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Interrogations - Coco Fusco and a call to arms

A Field Guide for Female Interrogators

Coco Fusco

A review, sort of:

Coco Fusco’s A Field Guide was oddly powerful. Short, only 142 pages long, with large type, it took me less than an hour to read. Yet, I wouldn’t call it an easy book. It hits home in a number of ways – asking, in essence, that we confront our understandings of, and admit our biases and stereotypes about, women, war, torture, and fear to name just a few of the things she covers.

I found myself taking notes on almost every page. Not just about my project on the Hercules Teams in NYC but about the importance of thinking about how our accepted cultural norms are embedded so deeply that even those of us who consider ourselves feminists, even those of us who (think we) oppose(d) the War on Terror and all it entails, and even those of us who were horrified and sickened by the (fraction of the total number of) abuses revealed in Iraq, are in many ways complicit with the very actions we (conceptually) abhor.

Fusco starts with her own reactions to the photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and follows those reactions through to a rather despairing conclusion: that at least in the military, feminism seems to have devolved into a simple equation: equality = act just like a man. And that includes perpetrating violence in a number of arenas – particularly in interrogation rooms.

In order to understand interrogation techniques so she can hope to understand why women seem to be participating without qualm, Fusco and a group of women academics attend an interrogation school. While she learns a lot, she doesn’t seem to learn quite what she’d hoped to; she was looking for the why, and she got the how. Still, she successfully gives us a sense of the setting, and the possibility for understanding how sexuality and vulnerability come into play in the wielding of power.

Fusco’s continued use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ to refer to women bothered me at first. In essence this phrasing pulls all women into her point of view, and assumes that our perceptions and reactions will be the same as hers – because we are women. Cultural theorists and feminists have spent a great many years taking this notion apart. “Women” is not ‘a group’ defined by any characteristics that cross all the boundaries, and cannot be understood as such. Eventually I realized that Fusco does this on purpose. ‘We’ are indeed who she speaks for – maybe women, maybe Americans, maybe Westerners, maybe the readers of her book. Whoever ‘we’ are, she is part of us.

This is based on the same argument as her exploration of the source of our shock when we find out that women have participated voluntarily in strategic aggression: power plays with fellow soldiers, and harsh and violent interrogation techniques. Her argument is that our shock at finding out that women participated in the abuses in Abu Graib, and that female soldiers in fact (appear to) use their femininity as power, is unfounded because it is based on American society’s belief in a false collective female ethical or moral high ground based on our history as oppressed victims. In other words: we believe women wouldn’t really participate in torture because they / we are somehow not wired that way; they / we are ethically / morally unable to use power in that manner.

I felt the same resistance to her use of the initials US (without the periods, as in U.S.) to refer to the United States). The United States became US became us, became me. Her use of language made me part of the problem.

And yet, that indeed is her entire point. I am complicit. Her book is a call to arms, really, and a challenge. Do ‘we’ sit back and continue to rationalize this War on Terror and the abuses it is perpetrating on hundreds of thousands of people away by ignoring it, by assuming that our protests of its inception were enough, by feeling horrified? Or do we step up?

At least, that’s what I took from it. And my answer is that I step up.