My Time in the Mountains

The road wound endlessly through the grey, fuzzy mountains. I was curled up in the backseat of my parents’ Accord, shifting to avoid the tingling in my feet as they fell asleep ahead of my head.

It would be six more hours to go, and we were going to try to make it through the night. I’d put away my pitiful booklight, squeezing it into my Judy Blume novel in lieu of the bookmark I’d left at home. Exhausted from squinting at the barely-lit page, I tried to sleep by contorting my body around the seatbelt.

My parents were always impressed that I could even read in the car. They got nauseous if they tried it.

Read the full post on Medium.

How Women Feel on Labor Day

As we prepare for barbecues, pool parties, or Hurricane Dorian, many mothers are finishing up the potato salad, getting the kids dressed, checking flashlight batteries, or doing laundry before the power goes out. Their lists of domestic tasks have doubled or even tripled in the face of a holiday–hurricane twofer.

Although Labor Day is ostensibly about “real” labor and “real” jobs, it’s also a day forged through other types of labor: domestic and emotional. Every holiday requires event planning, homemaking, and getting people together. And unfortunately, the burden of this labor tends to fall on women.

Before the men chime in with wails that they do in fact do housework, let me explain: it’s not that you don’t do it. It’s that women do it more often.

Read the full piece on Medium.

The Singular “They”

As a writer and editor, I’m so glad that the singular “they” is becoming more accepted, for all the reasons you list and because it’s just. Damn. Easier. It’s taken some effort to convince my senior editor that it’s okay to use, and even more effort to convince my mother, who reads a lot of my stuff.

View the original, and what I was responding to, on Medium.

Does the Media Control Our Minds?

Science fiction has long explored, and warned of, our obsession with media and its power to control our thoughts. As propaganda efforts successfully encouraged complacency among citizens of Nazi-led Germany, as countless Americans today willfully consume fake news, these concerns seem justified. Even Black Mirror has done its part to control our behavior, making some of us (ahem) sit for hours to finish the episode “Bandersnatch.” It appears that we’re simply unwitting sheep dragged along by the crook of mass media.

But does propaganda really motivate people to do things they wouldn’t normally do? Can people really not tell the difference between reality television and reality? Do violent video games cause shooting sprees? Can someone be programmed with a musical trigger to assassinate someone? Are we being controlled by social media?

Let’s find out.

My Circus Journey

An old Tidy Cats container sits on the floor in front of the full-length mirrors. It’s no longer filled with what’s advertised but rather with a combination of chalk and rosin. Feeling the sweat slick return to my hands in our steamy studio, I march over to the container and lather my hands with the chalk-rosin mixture, then back over to the trapeze.

I ponder it a moment before leaping up to grab it. It reminds me of playing on the monkey bars as a kid. I was terrible at it. By comparison, my best childhood friend’s nickname was Monkey Girl. She had no issue pulling her body over the small trapeze swing on her playlet or climbing the giant magnolia in her front yard. Me, I was scared of heights and had the upper body strength of a chicken. I was no daredevil, unlike Monkey Girl, who seemed to be fearless.

Those were times past. Hanging from the trapeze, I engage my shoulders and contract my abs to bring my feet toward my face. Time for beats. I swing back and forth, toes passing between my hands on the bar, then pointing behind me as I temporarily become weightless. It’s my favorite part of this exercise.

Three and a half years ago, I fell in love with circus. I had worked out maybe five times over the previous decade and, despite appearing fit (read: skinny), I had no endurance. I had strong legs thanks to good genes, something that served me well when lifting things, but I felt an increasing need to be stronger. I loved dance and had been studying it off and on for years, but my clumsiness got in the way of the effortless look I wanted. So when I first saw a friend dancing in the air, I wondered if it would be a solution to my feet problem.

The initial hurdles seemed insurmountable. I couldn’t lift myself, my hands hurt from grabbing steel bars, I got hopelessly tangled in the silks, and I definitely couldn’t invert my body. And yet, I was hooked.

On my first visit to the studio that would become my second home and workplace over the next few years, I met with the director, Corey, to talk about potential collaboration on theatrical productions. Although I was there with my producer hat on, I remember eyeing the apparatuses and wondering what it was all like. They were installing the poles, which were terrifyingly tall to me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would eventually climb them.

Around the same time, I walked into the costume shop where I worked and discovered my coworker squeezing into leggings in the changing area. “I’m going to silks class and you have to wear super tight clothing or you get tangled up,” she laughed. It’s true. Eventually, I got so used to wearing leggings that I became one of those people who wears workout clothing all the time. Hey, it’s comfortable.

My first performance on the lyra, also called the aerial hoop, was at a vaguely hippie music festival, where aromas of patchouli and marijuana filled the air and fairy lights speckled the lawn. I nervously approached the hoop, the crash mat feeling way too squishy under my feet, grabbed the steel bar, and began my spin. I messed up my first trick, but after that, felt completely comfortable, even blissful, on the hoop. Although I didn’t make enough eye contact with the crowd, it was an incredible experience, to be up there in a magical world that I’d woven.

As I grew more confident in performing, my fear faded. I let the back of my mind, my reptilian brain, do the risk calculation and make a backup plan. It worked. During one performance on an exceptionally hot day, my hand slipped. My backup plan kicked in and I hooked my elbow to stop my fall. I struck a pose and the audience was none the wiser. When performing, think like a cat — something goes wrong, shake it off, arch your back, and say, “I meant to do that!”
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Part of my desire to be stronger was because I was still reeling from an abusive relationship I’d just escaped. Although he famously never hit me (and made sure not to so that I would have no evidence if I went to the police, he told me), I felt battered inside and out. My entire body was exhausted from constantly fearing for my safety, having to navigate treacherous day after day with him. I felt ugly, weak, and not secure in my body. Circus empowered me to reconnect with my body and learn to love it like I never had before. Rather than feeling like I was drawing everyday, I felt like I was flying everyday.

All the same, circus involves a lot of pain and grossness, although I’d take that sort of pain over partner abuse any day. You sweat a lot, especially in Florida, and your skin rips and bruises. You get what’s called “hand rips” if you don’t take care of your hands, and they look like stigmata. You get weird looks and concerned questions about whether everything is okay at home (which was ironic, given my ex-abuser who avoided punching me) as you try to hide your bruises with long sleeves and makeup. I remember posting a picture on Instagram of my legs, which were smattered with small bruises, and feeling disgusted. A stranger, a fellow traveler on a circus journey, commented and called them “circus kisses.” From then on, I started to appreciate the aches, pains, and bruises that were necessary to my growth. The increasing intensity of my circus training had a corresponding effect in my feeling of connectedness to my own body. I started to listen to my breath, to tap into my primal needs.
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As someone with a knack for teaching, I itched to share my knowledge with people, to inspire new fellow travelers on the circus journey. I spent a lot of time reading books about the art form, its history, the muscles involved, and so on. I created a massive dictionary of aerial maneuvers and tricks. The first time I taught a full class of students, I was elated as I saw it click for them, as they learned to climb, as they mastered their first trick.

In circus, you learn humility, patience, and you learn to appreciate small victories. You learn to accept the inevitable plateau for love of the incredible feeling you get when you finally nail that trick you’ve been working on for months…or even years. It’s a long game but one in which the prize is your own self-discovery and membership in a centuries-old art form with performers around the world.

It really is the greatest show on Earth.

Cross-posted to Medium.

Bullying = arrested development + violence (Research Focus)

The project began last September as research to help activist efforts for anti-bullying programs, driven by my deep sadness at several high-profile bullycides in 2010. Upon finding the very thorough anti-bullying laws already on the books in many states, I decided to launch an independent investigation into those programs, conducting interviews with local educators, lawmakers, and school board members here in Gainesville. At the time, I was also reading Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” and experiencing frustration with the frivolity and stupidity of many people my age, having recently graduated college with no sorrow at leaving many of my classmates behind. I also had recently experienced two severe heapings of bullying and abuse in my own life, and watched helplessly as a loved one dealt with repeated harassment at the workplace. I began to see connections between school bullying and workplace harassment, this kind of aggressive behavior and emotional underdevelopment, and this arrested development and America’s larger social and educational problems. A lot of connections to deal with in a research project. Thankfully anthropology is here to help, using theories of cultural logic and game play. The beginnings of my developing thesis follow:

Several psychocultural factors contribute to the prevalence of bullying in schools, and indeed, in society, but all relate to two major social phenomena: the normatization of violence and aggression, and, as mentioned above, arrested psychological and physical development. These phenomena are not restricted to the United States, but the Westernized, technological world, as an economic, information, cultural, and scientific monopolizer with the cultural logic of industry behind it, creates a particular developmental pattern and necessitates a justification ideology that allows the often violent use of power to maintain its privileges. The U.S., as a two-in-one individualistic and imperialistic national psyche, is a world leader that requires two things: for its citizens to buy into nationalistic ideology while desiring to serve a useful function in society, and for its youth to develop at a standardized clockwork buffered by laws, and to serve as cultural innovators first, social contributors second.

As a species, humans experience a period of arrested development, in which they are born with a relatively large brain and not much else. They depend entirely on their caretakers for food, shelter, and learning; they have to learn to communicate their needs and wants, and they will not be ready for even basic household tasks for at least three years. But psychologically, humans mature at vastly different rates across cultures, if only because social markers of maturity are set differently in each society, and often have no “psychological” component.

Something is missing, in education, parenting, and cultural norms and expectations that children provided with numerous goalposts of maturation—kindergarten, middle school, first school dance, the 13th birthday, high school, sweet 16, prom, losing virginity, graduation, 18th birthday, freshman year, 21st birthday, graduation—are so rarely in line with these markers. Why do so many kindergarteners have trouble speaking, yet are greeted with simplistic alphabet drills and macaroni art? Why do middle schoolers reach sexual maturity but know nothing about their bodies, leading to STDs and teen pregnancy? Why do high school graduates head for college with a minimal knowledge of history, science, foreign languages, and the civic system, yet are legally able to vote? Why do youths reach legal drinking age with no sense of responsibility for their life or families, after four years partying and “getting to know themselves” at college? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation when we start to wonder whether school breaks kids, or kids break schools—and each other.

Young Americans are kept in a dual role of consumer and cultural innovator, a lifestyle ever supplemented by technology and social networking. A cultural focus on individualism and increased leisure activities buffer America’s ever-growing disconnect from the rest of the world and lead to self-obsessed youths who think it’s okay to bully while carving out their place in the world. And parents normatize the aggressive tendencies bred of be-your-own-boss, survival-of-the-fittest ideals while endlessly grooming their children to be better versions of themselves. The tug-of-war between discordant aspects of American culture leads to a peculiar version of arrested development that leads an ever-consuming army of children to grow up into…children.

Bros before hos…so fros before ros.

Much was said about the bromance in “I Love You, Man,” released in 2009. There have been “buddy cop” movies for years, but they focused on comical pairings playing on racial and class stereotypes. Similarly, movies featuring groups of male friends have typically focused on those guys’ sexual and other adventures (e.g. “American Pie,” “Clerks”). Few movies actually explored the development and minutiae of male friendship, despite scores of movies exploring female friendships, so “I Love You, Man” was somewhat of a landmark as well as an endearing film. In the film, Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd, playing against type) is a “girlfriend guy” who’s never really been into testosterone rituals typical of the “guy world.” Rather, he’s inclined to chat with female coworkers and invest time and energy in cooking and fencing rather than binging and playing football. He’s also painfully socially awkward around other men. Frustrated that he’ll be without a best man at his wedding, he goes on a friend hunt, and although the writers draw amusing parallels between this and the frustrations of dating, his search is taken seriously enough that we the audience are forced to consider our own experiences with friendship. As we watch Peter evaluate the people he hangs out with, we see the reasons they’re wrong for him as clearly as we see the reasons the random dates of the protagonists in romantic comedies are wrong for them. Clearly, we are normally so focused on the trials of dating, we forget about the perhaps more important and more painful work that both blooming and enduring friendships require. “I Love You, Man” makes us turn the mirror on our friendships and wonder why we agonize about making this one “The One,” but let friendships just happen and take them for granted when we have them. Why don’t we evaluate our friendships for compatibility and health as we do our potential mates?

So why do we settle for friends in our own lives? Friendship should be natural and rich, just like the relationships we seek. The moment we meet Sydney Fife (the always amazing Jason Segel) and see his interaction with Peter, we know they’re perfect for each other. It’s not just a (b)romantic comedy cliché—in our own lives we’ve all met people with whom we hit it off right away, while other friends we have to evaluate and second-guess in every second of conversation. A bad friendship is just like a bad relationship: You fight more than you get along, discussions are artificial and one-sided, and you aren’t quite sure you can trust them not to hurt you. Everyone should ask themselves about everyone they spend time with, “Why is this person in my life?” I appreciate “I Love You, Man” for showing what true friendship is. Sydney accepts Peter for who he is, and doesn’t cut him down or punish him for his shortcomings (“I still want to hang out, despite that joke”), and doesn’t measure him for what he can provide him, unlike Jon Favreau’s character Barry, who dislikes Peter simply because he isn’t interested in poker and beer. Sydney encourages Peter to believe in himself and acknowledges his strengths and talents while still offering suggestions for improvement. Any friendship or relationship should enrich one’s life, bring one’s most positive aspects to the surface, and give one a safe outlet for self-expression through companionship.

On the other side of things, and a rather alarming reflection of the current attitudes towards female friendship, is a film released in 2008, “The House Bunny.” While intended to be a cute movie about growing up and girl power, the movie has but one message: Female friendships are conducted superficially and are based on material changes in one’s life. A far cry from excellent films about female friendship such as “Thelma and Louise,” “The House Bunny” follows the story of Shelley, a former Playboy bunny who becomes house mother to a group of socially awkward, ugly Zetas. While Peter is socially awkward around other men, he is a good-looking, intelligent, and successful real estate agent and talented musician, and doesn’t need to be saved by some champion of popularity. By contrast, the Zetas are all defective in some way, whether it’s with extreme geekiness, personal hygiene, androgynous appearance, or handicap, and it takes flighty and pampered but good-hearted Shelley to increase their confidence and make them “winners.” The movie pretends it’s championing confidence, not makeovers, but the two are equated, and worse, the friendships among the Zetas and Shelley is based upon this. Shelley is their friend because she makes them beautiful and gets them dates. She doesn’t bring out their better selves, she raises their self-esteem by applying to them her own standards of beauty and dating.

In a world of various celebrity “frenemies” and feuds among famous women, and with increasing awareness of female bullying, it is clear that female friendship needs attention. Now I don’t intend to imply that male friendship is doing well while female friendship is suffering. But the prevalence of female, as compared to male, friendship as a topic of movies and TV shows, doesn’t mean that female friendship is healthy, either. “Girlfriends” are consistently portrayed as involving discussion of fashion, boys, and beauty, and friendships between women of different “levels” in these domains are rarely portrayed. We more often see the swan taking the ugly duckling under her wing, than we do two birds of a different feather just enjoying a friendship.

“The House Bunny” demonstrates very clearly the unhealthy notions of self-worth bred by popularity contests in grade school—a process that never really goes away for men or women. I believe this is why friendships are often treated as things to collect and then dispose of; in school, children are ridiculed if they have “only a few friends,” while the “popular” kids are liked by everyone and thus are spoken of as though they are idols. Countless teen movies have expounded upon this idea, and countless movies regularly use the stereotypes and rules of grade school to cast characters and derive plots. It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint Peter as the geeky outsider who doesn’t get along with the “real boys,” or even as the sensitive male of ambiguous sexuality. Peter is a real character, while Emma Stone’s Natalie in “The House Bunny” is a shade, a two-dimensional representation of the geek girl who can’t get guys with her own merit. Shelley may be ignorant of this fact, but the screenwriters certainly were not.

What I hope is that popular culture doesn’t reflect social reality as neatly as it represents it. I hope that most friendships aren’t conducted so superficially, or held onto or let go for selfish reasons. I myself and people close to me have experienced bullying, taunts of “you don’t have any friends,” and general meanness from people we thought were friends, and have had friendships dropped as soon as the “benefits” of friendship were no longer clear. Most of this has come from women. I encourage everyone to consider and choose their friendships carefully, and to invest in people who make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves, rather than people we have to strive to please. The bottom line is, if you feel inadequate around a person, it’s because they’re making you feel that way. Ultimately you are responsible for your self-esteem, but if you feel like the battle to increase your sense of self-worth is more challenging than it should be around your friend, they’re not being your friend. So I hope that we’ll continue to see films like “I Love You, Man,” that explore, demonstrate, and inspire true friendship, between men, between women, and—here would be the next landmark—between a man and a woman.

My Life As a Zombie Extra

“I’m going to be a zombie!” I excitedly told my friends last January. “Huh?” was their usual response. Once I’d gotten the email, I sped to Facebook and trumpeted it for the world (at least as represented by my online friends) to hear. Funny how many people added, “Congratulations” after the “huh,” as though becoming undead was a desirable thing.

A lot of people hadn’t yet heard about the filming of a new zombie parody movie here in Valdosta. Word spread quickly, even though the whole thing, from extras auditions to wrap, was pretty covert. The rumored locations for filming were at Wild Adventures and a couple of undisclosed locations in town. Star Woody Harrelson made his presence known, though, even showing up at my favorite bar, Charley-Os (unfortunately I was not there that night). Oddly enough, I wasn’t as excited by the star power, but more at the sheer delight of (a) being on a movie set and (b) getting to run around and act crazy. Being a zombie extra was a free pass for normally frowned-upon behavior. Plus, it was like Halloween had come early!

I spent six nights, some going until 7 in the morning, on-set, running, stumbling, staggering, lurching, and bleeding. Believe me, it wasn’t glamorous. Extras don’t have personal assistants who bring you custom-made salads and extra rutabaga when you want it (Harrelson is on the “raw” diet). Also, since you’re basically part of the scenery, you get to stand there while thousands of light adjustments are made, cups of coffee are poured, and makeup touchups are done. It was February when we were filming, by the way. And zombies don’t really need parkas. Also, the zombie makeup we all looked forward to was comprised of concentrated coffee, soy sauce, and red goo. Not pleasant especially when it’s cold. They made it up to us, though, with a king’s feast of hot food every night. We got to eat like stars, even after being herded around like cattle or left standing in the cold for an hour. Plus, our makeup was done by professionals whose hands had touched major stars. My artist, Lee Grimes, had worked with Christina Ricci and Michael C. Hall. Senior history/anthropology/women’s studies major Samantha Bryant says, “I loved sitting there and getting stuff poured on me or getting airbrushed in trailers by [a] real make up artist. I was the kid [who] bought a gallon of fake blood every Halloween and drenched myself in it.” (Believe me, that was the case. One night they took two spray bottles of blood to my face, Old West-style.)

But let’s get to the good stuff. Besides the meager but much-needed monetary compensation, what made being a zombie worth it? Let’s hear from the crowd: sophomore theatre major Jessalin Smith says, “[I]t was fun to watch what goes on behind and in front of the cameras in the set of a movie.”Admittedly, most of what happens on-set isn’t really visible because of the huge scale of operations. But you do get a sense of the rhythm and process of filmmaking, and of course it’s fun to bump into the actors (the stunt zombies were pretty interesting too). Sophomore theatre major Isaac Huntington says, “The best part of filming was probably getting up close with the stars.” Most of us got pretty close by Harrelson and co-stars Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin (who smiled at me!), and Jesse Eisenberg. Sam remembers, “A bunch of us huddled together and discussed what we’d say to Woody Harrelson if we got the chance. I shrugged . . .‘Natural Born Killers’ had been great but I’d never watched ‘Cheers’ and was afraid to bring up ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ so I decided to keep my mouth shut and smile. [Then] I heard someone say “Hey. What’s up?”. . . I spun to greet them with a large smile and hearty ‘Hello.’ I was met with Woody Harrelson, cowboy hat and all. Fear set in and my smile contorted to an awful look of shock and fear. Add that to the zombie makeup and well…. He reared back just as shocked as I was and I quickly scampered off.”

There was also a certain prestige and intrigue to life as an extra. We all got asked what we had seen on-set, what the stars were like, what we knew about the movie, could we show pictures. Of course, it was in our contract to not talk about the movie (like in “Fight Club”) or take pictures of our makeup. Whether the leaks of certain events (e.g. the Hummer crashing into the lake) were intentional or not, I do not know. Even extras were as fooled by rumors (e.g. Matthew McConaughey being a zombie) as the general Valdosta population. Smith says, “The crew was very closed mouthed about the plot and scenes, and when the extras weren’t filming, we were put into a ‘holding room’ where we weren’t allowed to see the rest of the movie being filmed.” Despite all that, being on a secret set gave us extras a certain privilege, and being a zombie automatically made us cool: “I’ve become some strange celebrity amongst my family members,” says Bryant.

Now the film’s release is upon us, and unfortunately for us former extras, most of the secrets are out. We’ve all seen the trailers, and Valdosta natives can point out Wild Adventures scenes, and on occasion their friends and acquaintances (two people I know are in the trailer for a second). Most people hope to have a glimpse of themselves or their friends on-screen. I myself got to run right in front of the camera several times, and I’m wearing bright pink and purple, so here’s hoping. Even if we don’t make the cut, we still get to be cool. And as Bryant says, eventually “annoy my friends with the pause button when the movie reaches DVD.”

Originally published in Oct. 1 issue of the VSU Spectator.

Rules of Cinema and Books

Rule #1. The book is always better. Why? Because characters are more fully explored than they are in movies. This is for the simple reason that movies must be compact (unless you’re Peter Jackson) and therefore characters are as well (as Joss Whedon said, a TV show gives much, much more space to develop characters). Which leads us to…
Rule #2. A book with as many pages as there are minutes in a movie of the same book, is still longer.
Rule #3. A book’s readership is no measure of its greatness, although a book’s greatness is a good predictor of its readership.
Rule #4. A movie’s box office receipts, critical response, and DVD sales are no measure of its greatness, and a movie’s greatness is no predictor of any of these.
Rule #5. A classic is anything (good) that has touched multiple generations across time. Examples of classic books: Pride and Prejudice, Heart of Darkness. Examples of non-classics: Twilight, Harry Potter (sorry, Rowling…I’m sure they will be!). Examples of classic films: Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur. Examples of non-classic films: anything made in the past 15 years. Which leads us to…
Rule #6. Films have much shorter time requirements than books do for becoming classics. Why? Because film consumerism is much more immediate and repeated, but we can’t measure a film’s greatness by its consumption (see Rule #4), so we must measure it by its worth and influence.
Rule #7. An adaptation should never aim to please only fans (hello, Twilight), and should never change anything solely to make it “cinematic.”
Rule #8. Rules of what makes a movie “cinematic” mean nothing. Let there not be a happy ending for once. Let something develop through dialogue rather than through events.
Rule #9. Limit exposition. Especially in TV.
Rule #10. Books will always be better on paper; movies will always be better in a theater.