Tuesday, April 22, 2014

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry: Happy Birthday, Nabokov edition

Today is Vladimir Nabokov's birthday and it's also National Poetry Month, so I'm celebrating both by posting a poem of my own (!) that was recently published in Measure.

Nabokov and his wife Vera shared a love of lepidoptery (collecting butterflies) - and he drew butterflies alongside his inscriptions in first editions gifted to her. 

Their relationship is legendary -- in a recent article in the Atlantic entitled "The Legend of Vera Nabokov," Koa Beck considers how Vera's support and devotion to her husband's career impacted his success. They are the original power couple; think Claire and Francis Underwood, replacing politics with literature and minus the murder and creepy threesomes.

Vladimir died in 1977; Vera, not until 1991. I wrote this poem in grad school as I tried to imagine what she did with all the butterflies after his death. 

Vera vs. the Butterflies
The eastern side of every minute of mine is already colored by the light of our impending meeting.
All the rest is dark, boring, you-less. – Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Vera, 1937

She had already lost him
and now his winged darlings
were hers to keep or kill.

She shared his fascination
with fragility and flight,
but walking in the woods

alone, armed with the net
he had given her, noting
each abandoned chrysalis,

unusual flecks of blue
on a Parnassius apollo,
she knew they had to go.

A book suggested pinching
thorax between thumb
and middle finger to snap

the exoskeleton for a quick
death, but she couldn’t bear
their blood on her hands.

Suffocation in a kill jar –
too inhumane. She decided
finally to freeze them, let the air

do her dirty work. Watching
their wings pulse to stillness,
she imagined his delight

at the sudden flutter
of company, diaphanous
prologue to their reunion.

V & V

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Voice Teachers

At one point in my life, singing meant everything to me.

Nowadays, it plays a peripheral role. I sing in the shower and in the car and semi-regularly at karaoke bars in whatever city I happen to be living in. I have joined some non-professional choirs over the years. Nothing too serious.

But once, it was my world -- it was the first thing I remember being good at. Before I knew I could write, before I knew I was reasonably intelligent, I knew I could sing. I knew it even before my first music teacher, the lovely Diane Ladendecker, told me I had a nice voice. It's the first skill I recall feeling like I just had-- as in, no one taught it to me. I somehow magically just could sing Happy Birthday correctly. I could hear a song and sing it -- and it did seem like a miraculous gift.

As a child, I sang not just in the school choir, but in community choirs as well. Choirs that had real paying gigs. And then I started doing theater -- specifically musical theater and opera. So once I hit high school, it seemed logical to start taking voice lessons. And of course, I wanted to take them from the best teacher in town, the teacher with the best reputation: Sheila Dugan. Her name was spoken in hushed tones among child performers and their parents. She was expensive. She didn't agree to work with just anyone. She had to agree that you were worth teaching to take you on as a student. But as far as I was concerned, there was no one else from whom I could possibly study voice. So if she was willing to work with me, my parents said they were willing to pay for it.

I owe a lot to Sheila Dugan. She taught me that singing is all about breathing. For the first three months, we did no singing-- only breathing exercises. My tone was too airy and I had no breath support. She taught me how to focus my tone and sustain -- she taught me how to control my instrument. She was tough on me but I appreciated it. She helped me turn raw talent into real skill.

Sheila Dugan is still, I believe, revered among St. Louis singers. Many of her students have gone on to illustrious careers on Broadway. She's the real deal. She's also, however, the person who almost managed to make me hate singing and give up on it entirely. I left my final lesson in tears, convinced I had no talent whatsoever.

I started working with Sheila my sophomore year of high school, but the trouble started my senior year, when I wanted to enter a vocal competition sponsored by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The competition was open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 35 not enrolled in a vocal performance program, so clearly winning would be a long shot. My high school choir teacher encouraged me to enter not because she thought I could win, but because she thought it would be good experience. To compete, you had to prepare two songs in non-English languages, so she also said it would be a great excuse for me to expand my repertoire.

At my next lesson with Sheila, I told her I wanted to start preparing material for this competition. And Sheila was aghast and appalled. She told me that I had no chance and I would be wasting everyone's time. She said, "My students enter these competitions and win them. If you want to enter, I will not allow you to list me as your vocal instructor. I have a reputation to uphold." She also told me that I was her weakest student, that she could line up all her students in a row and every one of them could outsing me. She actually said those words, exactly. My memory of this afternoon is crystal clear.

It was my last lesson. I was shattered. To this day, I don't understand why she had to be so, well, mean. I stopped taking lessons. I didn't enter the competition. I never saw Sheila Dugan again.

Next fall, I went to college at Yale and joined an a cappella group. Did a bunch of shows in my four years, some musicals, some not. After graduating, I moved to NYC and started auditioning. And inevitably, the idea of resuming voice lessons (once I had a steady job and could afford them) occurred to me. But I was scared -- I'd had such a negative experience. I really felt like Sheila Dugan had broken something inside me. I wasn't sure I could make myself vulnerable enough to work with another voice teacher one-on-one.

Somehow, through circumstances I can't recall, I was put in touch with Nomi Tichman. Hesitantly, I went to my first lesson. We hit it off like gangbusters. She was just as good a teacher as Sheila, but unlike Shelia, she actually seemed to like and respect me as a person, to have my best interests at heart. When I wanted to audition for a part I was unlikely to land, she encouraged me. She didn't lie to me, but she supported me. And in the arts, as a young artist especially, that's invaluable. Her apartment on the Upper West Side was a safe space for me to experiment with my artistry. I studied with Nomi for several years while I was in New York and even when I barely had enough money to pay my rent, I never stopped budgeting money for voice lessons. It was good for my spirit. I remembered what it felt like to enjoy singing again.

I have referred Nomi to a number of my friends because it's fucking hard to be an actor/musician in New York and having someone in your creative corner is so, so important. She's a wonderful teacher. When I first started working with her, I had a lot of notions about what I could and couldn't do. I thought primarily in terms of limitations and boundaries. I can't sing this type of role, I can't belt above this note, etc. She helped me think past all that. And I will always be grateful for her for that.

(You might wonder what prompted this apropos-of-nothing post about singing and studying voice -- well, last night I went to see a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. And reading the bios of the actors in the program, I saw that the actor playing Jesus was from St. Louis and had studied with Sheila Dugan. A flood of memories came back -- not just about Sheila but about my own evolution as a singer -which coincided with my evolution into adulthood.)

For anyone on an artistic or creative path, there will always be an infinite number of Sheilas. You have to learn how to tune them out and find the Nomis.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Mysterious Origins of My Feminism

Let me share a little secret: I honestly can't remember when I started self-identifying as a feminist. 

A few years ago, I remember a friend in Boston saying that my feminism was one of my defining characteristics, that I was one of the most feminist women he knew. I was surprised and flattered, but mostly surprised. It's not like I'm all that active in the community and I know of a number of women whom I consider to be more hardcore about their feminism (such radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson who is celibate because she's heterosexual but thinks all heterosexual penetrative sex is a form of rape. Now THAT's extreme feminism). 

And yet, I can't deny it -- when tasked with choosing a theme for my writing course at Emerson, I immediately chose gender. Well, actually, first I chose the Women's Movement, but switched to gender in an attempt to be more inclusive and less political. Gender is the theme of the course I currently teach at UWEC. Many of my students are pleasantly surprised at how much they end up investing in the topic and comments on end-of-year evaluations like "This course opened my eyes and made me see things differently" warm my heart. But then, of course, there are a few comments like these:

"If you are going to teach a class on gender, get an instructor that isn't biased to one side of gender issues."

"I feel the proffessor [sic] pushed her feminist views to [sic] much"

"Theme seems sexist; the professor's personal views were apparent throughout"

Cat's out of the bag, y'all. Turns out, I'm a raging feminist! My students have figured it out!

But wait -- is that so bad? Let's be clear, I'm teaching writing and critical reading, not Women's Studies. And I do believe I keep the focus on those skills. But is it really the worst thing in the world for a teacher to have an opinion? I mean, if I were a racist, I could see the problem. But being a feminist simply means I think men and women should be treated equally. Is it such a terrible shortcoming that my students have picked up on the fact that I'm a woman with some views about things? 

If I were gay, would I need to hide the fact that I support gay rights? Surely no one would say I would need to present "both sides" of that issue -- i.e. bring in some hate speech just for the sake of balance. So yeah, I'm a woman and I support equal rights for women. (And for the record, I use texts in my class from the IWF, an anti-feminist conservative org, and "equity feminist" Christina Hoff Sommers, whom I personally loathe, so that seems pretty balanced to me). 

I don't hate men; my best friend is a man. I'm dating a man whom I love very much. The world is full of awesome men. I just think women should be respected as human beings and valued based on the same qualities as men, namely their abilities, compassion, and character, not how hot they look in lingerie. We live in a world where shit like this exists:

and yet many of my students, both male and female, think feminism is obsolete, no longer necessary.The fact that so many people put so much energy into making feminism seem unappealing to young women is precisely why it is so necessary. Duh.

But where did my own feminism come from? My mother is not a feminist. She certainly didn't try to shield me from Disney or girly girl stuff. I wore tons of pink. I told everyone I wanted to be a princess when I grew up. I actually once, in second grade, cried because I wasn't blonde and blue-eyed and my name wasn't Crystal. True fact.

I remember first feeling what I'd now identify as feminist outrage in high school when the philosophy behind my school's dress code was explained to me in terms of sexy outfits (spaghetti straps, short skirts) being too distracting for boys....implying that their education was somehow prioritized over mine and that without the dress code, the poor male students would never be able to concentrate. I didn't really object to the dress code until it was framed for me in that way. Boys had to wear coat-and-tie and let me tell you, some of the butt-ass ugly ties these dudes wore was PLENTY distracting to my learning. 

Fast-forward to college, where I took my first and only Women's Studies class junior year.  Yes, you read that correctly. I took exactly one Women's Studies class in college and it was the intro survey course. So for anyone who thought it was my liberal college education that made me into the feminist I am today, think again. Some foundations were laid, surely -- I was blown away by much of what I read and was exposed to in that class -- but it's not like I took any follow-up upper level courses. I was an English major, I had a lot of Virginia Woolf to read. And I was more focused on theatre and a cappella than academics anyway. 

After college, I started working for a rare book & manuscript firm, and after a year of being an administrative assistant, I was upgraded to cataloging material for one client. A client who was specifically building a collection of books/ephemera by and about American women. And this is maybe when I started to, how should I put it, transition. I handled some incredible primary source material from the suffrage movement -- letters, pamphlets, speeches, photographs. I got a little obsessed. So many incredible women fighting and writing and nearly dying for what they believed in. I was hooked. And I was struck by how little I really knew about American women's history - why is it that I studied the Civil Rights Movement in AP U.S. History but not the Women's Movement? Why did I have to write papers on the War of 1812 but not the Feminine Mystique? 

So yes, the theme of my writing class is personally important. Because most of these kids will never take a Women's Studies class. I want my students to become better writers. I don't expect them to be converted to feminism because of my class; that's not my secret (or not-so-secret) agenda. But if it happens? Yeah, I don't feel too badly about that. Sorry.

But not really.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Everything's...Gonna Be Alright?

This image, by Christopher Clark, has been my desktop wallpaper for about a year and a half now. I saw it exhibited as part of Cooper-Hewitt's "Graphic Design: Now in Production" show in May 2012. I was at the time gearing up for another major life change; I had decided, despite having a good job and being in a stable (at the time I would have probably said "good-ish") relationship, to uproot myself from Boston and move back to midwest after over a dozen years on the East Coast.

I felt stuck. I felt like I was going through the motions. While I loved my friends in Boston and was successfully supporting myself, something was not clicking. So I moved to Chicago. And as I wrote about nearly a year ago, I got very very depressed. I was lethargic, I felt utterly purposeless. On days when I didn't have to be anywhere, I stayed in pajamas and ordered pizza (and not even good pizza! I'm talking Dominos, which, when you live in Chicago, is a travesty to consume). 

So Clark's typographic art - the clash of the beauty of the image and its sad, sober message - really resonated with me. I looked at it a lot, when I was trying to convince myself to write poetry, or blog, or even just write a damn Yelp review, anything to get my brain functioning, to reconnect to my writing self.

Tonight, for the first time since May 2012, I am thinking about changing my desktop wallpaper. Because something kind of incredible and unexpected has happened and the message no longer strikes a chord.

On July 15 of this year, I got a phone call that changed everything - an offer to teach at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. I was a little terrified; until Eau Claire, I had only lived in major metropolitan areas. You know, places with amazing restaurants and good public transit and culture around every corner. I read Eau Claire's Wikipedia page and was not sure how I would fare in the Horseradish Capital of the World, population 65,000. Now, I know 65K is not tiny -- but compared to Chicago, it feels pretty podunk. When I visited the campus, there was a deer hanging out in the student parking lot. 

But it was a good job offer and I didn't have much going on in Chicago -- part-time teaching gigs supplemented by hostessing at a trendy late-night dining spot downtown. I loved living in Chicago but nothing was tethering me there, so once again, I decided to just move. My contract was only for a year, so I figured if I hated Wisconsin, I could always move back to Chicago after the school year.

I have now been here for 4 months. I have no plans to leave anytime soon. It actually feels like home to me, the girl who couldn't wait to live in NYC after graduating from college. The people I have met here feel like lifelong friends. I love my job and my colleagues. I love my little weird one-bedroom apartment. I love my "new" car (new to me - it's a 2004 Honda Civic. Her name is Loretta.). I am writing again. I'm singing in the shower again. Something inside tells me I could really be happy here, for a while. Forever? I'm not sure. I do miss some city stuff (mostly ethnic food and liquor stores that are open past 9pm and not having to drive everywhere) and I have yet to experience true "Wisconsin cold," but if I can stay here and keep teaching next year, I absolutely will. 

Oh, and another really unexpected thing: I'm in love! With a wonderful man who makes me so, so happy. I have been in a lot of different kinds of relationships over the years that offered some of the things I was looking for, but always with some compromises. I had pretty much given up on certain things and was starting to believe that if I wanted to get married and have a family, I would just have to settle for close enough, assuming I could find someone who would have me. But this is different. It's still a new relationship, so who knows - the last time I wrote on this blog about being happy and in love, the shit hit the fan almost immediately (and the guy in question turned out to be a total sociopath). So we'll see. Fingers crossed.

Yesterday, some psych students came by my office and asked if I would take a quick survey as part of a project they were doing, comparing beliefs/values of humanities vs. non-humanities faculty. The questions were about being satisfied with your life -- one statement that I had to rate on a scale of strongly disagree to strongly agree was "My life is very close to my ideal." Six months ago, I would have strongly disagreed with that statement. And now, after a momentary flash of "well, ideally I would be 10 lbs lighter, a millionaire, and have a book deal, and an apartment in Paris" I realized what I do have, which is pretty ideal: a job I love that is rewarding and pays me a living wage, a family that is healthy and speaking to one another, friends that care about me, an apartment I like to spend time in, enough money to get by, and a man who thinks I'm beautiful and smart and tells me so daily. If my ideal is to have a fulfilling, happy life filled with adventures and wonderful people, I'm getting pretty close.

I circled "somewhat agree". I mean, a book deal would still be nice.

Definitely have to find a new image for my desktop wallpaper. Being cynical about life no longer feels authentic. Don't worry, I don't think I'll ever look as happy as the people in this ad who are really ecstatic about the accredited nursing program that offers flexible night and online classes:

Come on, NO ONE is THAT happy (or has that group of wildly attractive, racially diverse friends).