Five in Five

Eight in Some: Sunday, February 18

A prompt for today’s post:

Recently, the chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City rejected the White House’s request to loan Vincent van Gogh’s Landscape With Snow painting, instead offering to lend Maurizio Cattelan’s functional, solid gold toilet sculpture titled America. If you could borrow any work of art from a museum or collection in the world, what would you choose? 

First off, I giggle at the Guggenheim’s statement in counter-offering the gold toilet sculpture to the Trump White House. 

Beyond that, well, this prompt got me thinking for days. Coincidentally, just after I started compiling thoughts and ideas about the art that appeals to me to the point that I’d like to have it in my house for an extended period, the Obamas’ official portraits were released. I am not going to ask for either of those portraits on loan, though, as a huge part of their importance is having those powerful black faces — created by black artists — hanging in public spaces. 

Sooooo…if I could have some art on loan, what might I request?

Immediately after I started pondering this question, I knew a couple of things: I tend to favor close-up portraits of people’s faces, and I am partial to textiles and fiber arts. Of course, my taste is not limited to these things, but my heart does thump visibly in my sternum for them, which explains why the first artist to come to mind was Cayce Zavaglia, whose portraits of friends and family give life to my Instagram, whose embroidery technique stops all my traffic, whose display of the “verso” of each piece serves as a metaphor for what it is to be human. An article published by Studio International notes:

The artist’s proclivity for portraying people she trusts as beautiful, strong and timeless found a counterpart in the embroideries’ reverse, where facial features become obscured by unwanted threads and knots. Zavaglia found an inspiring metaphor in the discovery of this reverse image, as it indicates, for her, the unseen and unpolished side of the human psyche. Apart from opening up the reverse side of her embroidered paintings to the viewer by displaying them on stands in the manner of sculpture, Zavaglia also found a way back to painting by focusing on this reverse side and documenting it in her hyperrealistic style in various stages of completion.

My first possible request, then, would be anything by Cayce Zavaglia.

Zavaglia’s Instagram account not only features her work in progress, it also includes images of her current inspirations as an artist. A few months ago, she posted the image below on the right, of a red-haired dandy, which leads me to my next possible choice of a loan. That portrait of a wealthy, privileged man — yet clearly altered so that the colors and his appearance are jacked up — will not leave my head. Zavaglia’s commenters identified the 17th C. original from which the red-head was drawn: Portrait of a Young Man of the Chigi Family by Jacob Ferdinand Voet, which you see below on the left. 

So Zavaglia was inspired by the jacked-up portrait, which was done by a disabled artist named Terri Bowden, and Bowden based her work on the original done by Voet, and, well, the whole business of art paying itself forward feels right and just. A blog named Disparate Minds explains Bowden’s approach thusly:

In her boldly marked drawings, Terri Bowden portrays…figures as if they are intense, strikingly present memories – fleshy and visceral in some aspects, but broadly summarized, distorted, and surreal in others. Faces are rendered with a realism and clarity that evokes vulnerability, re-contextualizing familiar icons of distant pop culture with a mysterious, untold narrative. 

It’s the business of “re-contextualizing familiar icons of distant pop culture” that comes across strongly for me in the red-haired Chigi portrait. That dandy in Bowden’s painting is club-ready — his colors vivid and unreal in a way that makes me feel like I want to get dizzy under a disco ball with him.

In other words, I wouldn’t mind that face hanging on the wall in the living room.

Also arresting to my eyes are the narrative quilts of Faith Ringgold, best known as the author of the children’s book Tar Beach. On her website, there is an FAQ section; one of my favorite moments on that page is this:

Do you do all your books on the criticism of black people? 
Like all artists and writers, I am both enriched and limited by what I know and have experienced. In other words my books and my art are based on my life’s experience. I am, as you know, a black woman in America.

I also appreciate this overview of her work and views, as explained on Artsy:

A fervent civil rights and gender equality activist, Faith Ringgold has produced an inherently political oeuvre. In the early 1970s, she abandoned traditional oils for painting in acrylic on unstretched canvas with fabric borders, a technique evoking Tibetan thangkas (silk paintings with embroidery). The painted narrative quilts for which Ringgold is best known grew out of these early paintings, and denounce racism and discrimination with their subject matter. Combining quilt making, genre painting, and story telling through images and hand-written texts, the series “The American Collection” (1997) endeavors to rewrite African American art history, emphasizing the importance of family, roots, and artistic collaboration. In addition to demonstrating against the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney over what she perceives to be their exclusion of black and female artists, Ringgold has co-founded groups to support these demographics.

Below, you can see a few options that I would weigh, were I to request a loan of one of Ringgold’s quilts. On the left is Josephine Baker’s Bananas, in the middle is Who’s Bad?, and on the right is Echoes of Harlem

Another possible request for a loan might be this next piece, Trolleyed, by Debbie Smyth, whose work is described as “statement thread drawings” by Thread Week:

 …these playful yet sophisticated contemporary artworks are created by stretching a network of threads between accurately plotted pins. Her work beautifully blurs the boundaries between fine art drawings and textile art, flat and 3D work, illustration and embroidery, literally lifting the drawn line off the page in a series of “pin and thread” drawings.

The mixture of strong lines with messy ends feels a bit like looking in a mirror, to be honest. That this work manages to be both complicated and spare is another achievement I appreciate in all arts. Capping off my positive reaction to this shopping cart is that it’s an everyday thing — not some fancy 17th C. dude ready to go to the club but, rather, an item we all have touched, pushed, and used for its practicality. I look at Smyth’s cart, and it feels familiar; it feels tangled; it feels real; it feels fanciful. It feels like it should come hang on my kitchen wall.

Okay, the next contender for a letter from Jocelyn that opens with “Dear Artist I Admire: Could I show up with a pick-up truck and tote off one of your pieces…” is a Ghaniain man named El Anatsui who is, according to the Jack Shainman gallery:

well-known for large scale sculpture composed of thousands of folded and crumpled pieces of metal sourced from local alcohol recycling stations and bound together with copper wire. These intricate works, which can grow to be massive in scale, are both luminous and weighty, meticulously fabricated yet malleable.

Anatsui’s works feel like chain mail quilts, and I’m pretty sure I should hang one next to the bed so that I have something to look at when I can’t sleep at 4 a.m.

Awwwright, with these next ones, I’m going straight-on classic as I consider borrowing the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. Even though she produced in the 17th C., the controlled, bloodthirsty female rage in Judith Slaying Holofernes, Jael and Sisera, and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist feels pointedly relevant in today’s #metoo watershed, particularly if the paintings are viewed as a kind of autobiography — in which Gentileschi has painted herself as the murdering female exacting vengeance upon her abuser. Famously, Gentileschi was raped by a teacher/mentor, and if you’d like to know what that guy looked like, take a gander at the face of Holofernes, bleeding out on the bed.

 I like this article in The Guardian that asks: 

Artemisia Gentileschi turned the horrors of her own life – repression, injustice, rape – into brutal biblical paintings that were also a war cry for oppressed women. Why has her extraordinary genius been overlooked? 

Again coincidentally, I had collaged these three paintings the day before the Obama portraits were unveiled, a day before Twitter erupted with opinions and tweets about every last detail, including outrage (from some) that one of the artists, Kehinde Wiley, has previously painted images of black women holding the severed heads of white women. In some beautiful Twitter moments, swells of art lovers directed the outraged to some basic art history — including various iterations of Judith slaying Holofernes — and explained to those who can’t fathom why a black woman holding a white woman’s head is a powerful fucking statement and not just “awful” that there is this thing where artistic pieces resonate over hundreds of years, and artists reference previous works in a way that adds layers to their new creations. I also appreciated those who posted art works in which black people are abused, dismembered, lynched, murdered, and oppressed and asked where the outrage had been when they were produced.

In summary: I am newly passionate about Artemisia Gentileschi because Trump is president, black lives matter, and sexual assault is no longer cause for a woman to feel she is at fault. COME TO ME, ARTEMISIA. I’d like to hang your work in the home of a woman I know who told her daughter “You made that all up” when she read her girl’s written account of the sexual harrassments she has experienced during her lifetime. 

Now that I’ve been crabby about mothers who have internalized misogyny to the point that they are unable to be allies to their daughters, can we look at more quilts? The story quilts made by Malawian Billie Zangewa literally center a black woman, and they do it in a way that’s intimate, real, and human, focusing as they do on frozen moments from the artist’s life. In a quilt hanging in a museum (OR MY HALLWAY), do I want to see kitchen appliances plugged into an outlet? Yes, yes, I do. Do I want to see the pipe running from the artist’s bathroom sink in one of her pieces? Yes, yes, I do.

An article from True Africa provides more insights into Zangewa and what she does:

You do all your own stitching for your intricate silk tapestries. Can you tell us about the process?

I start off with an experience that elicits an emotion. The emotion then inspires an image that examines and narrates the experience. From here I do my visual research and then the template drawing. This is followed by cutting and pinning and then finally, the sewing.

It’s a very lengthy process and it all has to come together in the drawing phase otherwise I experience problems later on in the process. I have also learnt to allow my intuition to tell me what order things must be cut and pinned in. Previously, I would go from left to right or visa versa but the intuitive approach is more exciting and rewarding.

There’s been a lot of discussion on representation of black women in arts and culture. Do you find it empowering to portray yourself in your work as an African and black woman?

Absolutely. I am using my own image and body to tell my story. What could be more empowering than that?

Fortunately, my house has endless capacity when it comes to space on the walls for great art, which means I would like to borrow at least ten portraits painted by Missoula artist Tim Nielson (who also happens to be a friend, so you fuck wid him, you fuck wid me), filling all remaining hanging space with his vigorous, glorious, no-bullshittery patterns and shadows. If you follow him on Facebook, you’ll see that Tim chooses to paint people who deserve greater representation, and, truth be told, many times I don’t initially know the histories of his subjects. Fortunately, researching them teaches me much and gets my head to a place where I can start to see how Florynce Kennedy, Emma Goldman, John Brown, and St. James Hampton, for instance, are interrelated contributors to vision, activism, and constructive anarchy. 

With Tim’s portraits filling my house, I’d have to shout at least once a day, “OKAY, BITCHES, LET’S OVERTHROW SOME SHIT!”

While my yells might scare the neighbors during windows-open season, who knows: some of them might get inspired.

And before you know it, look

Something happened.

Art changed the world.

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Seven in Fifty-One: Saturday, February 17

This afternoon, Allegra, friend Linda, and I drove through several flat, soul-sucking towns, braving the border of Wisconsin, so that we could participate in a race across a frozen bay in Lake Superior. Approximately 4,000 skiers, snowshoers, and runners take part each year in this night-time race, lit only by luminaries and the frigid tears dotting participants’ cheeks.

During our time in the car, I asked Linda to consider what she knows now, at age 51, that she didn’t know at, say, age 10. Put another way: what about her life now would surprise her younger self?

Reflecting, Linda noted that her 10-year-old self would never have known these things:

1. That her “new friend,” a pen pal she started writing to when she was eight, would, 43 years later, still be her “Numero Uno” — the two of them linked in an effortless friendship. Even more, Linda’s younger self would never have predicted how much time and effort they would would put into each other over the years.

2. That grown-ups have problems and issues and haven’t reached a point where they have it all figured out and are living on easy cruise control. Linda’s younger self was certain adults were never petty or vindictive or engaged in negative interactions. Linda’s older self knows better and is happy to realize that the adult experience is one of growing, changing, and adapting. In the past five years, she’s learned so much — about relationships, for example, and what they should and shouldn’t be. It was only as she neared the half-century mark that Linda understood a person can be independent and still be in a relationship.

3. That time will keep on trippin’, trippin’, trippin’, into the future. At 51, Linda is extremely aware of the passage of time, of her parents’ aging, her oldest nephew heading off to college, her former teachers looking crinkled and “super old.” This awareness doesn’t make Linda sad, per se, but more in awe that time continues to march on, marveling at how things just keep on keepin’ on. Even more, she feels finely attuned to the cycle of birth and death and growth. Although she recalls that this awareness began to develop in the 6th grade, it was when the nephew to whom she used to read Curious George Makes Pancakes left home for college that she realized those moments with him on her lap still feel like yesterday.

When no one’s on her lap, Linda jumps on hay bales.

4. That she would become a social worker. When Linda was 10, she was sure she’d be a nurse — never considering other possibilities — starting college in pre-nursing and then moving towards a nursing degree…at which point she promptly decided nursing was not for her, mostly due to the chemistry and math. Compounding her worries about the classes was her low self-confidence, which caused her to run the other way at the first sign of failure. After nursing, she moved to classes in teaching…until, thanks to poor attendance, she failed out. Eventually, Linda got sober and at that point understood she had a desire to finish her degree. In thinking about which classes had suited her best in her previous academic career, she realized psychology and sociology had resonated. As a result, Linda ended up majoring in sociology; after receiving her bachelor’s degree, one thing was clear: she didn’t feel done learning yet. Rather, she felt like she was just getting started, primed to go further. A couple years later, Linda finished graduate school with an MSW and became a social worker. Her work with the elderly and ill now draws upon her abilities to listen with compassion and without judgment, to empathize with all people, and to affect lives on a personal level. For 51-year-old Linda, the definition of successful work isn’t a life where she’s recording vitals but, instead, when she gets home and thinks, “I really made that individual’s or family’s day better.”

5. That she would mature into someone who doesn’t care what other people think — that she is all good if she makes her own decisions, takes care of her own business, and keeps her eyes on her own paper.

6. That “stale” isn’t the intended taste for crackers. It was only when Linda got old enough to move out of her parents’ house and started to buy her own food that she experienced the sensation of “fresh” when it comes to crackers.

7. That she, a woman who once crumpled when faced with a challenge, might one day ski 10 kilometers across a frozen bay in the pitch dark, and that, as she skied, a strange man would glide into her personal space and yell at her obscured face “STEVE? STEVE?” And when she thought to herself, “Well, I’m not Steve, so I’m just going to keep going,” the man would try again: “STEVE?” Despite the violation of her focused rhythm, she would continue to stride — until he got in real close-like and hollered “STEVE, IS THAT YOU?” which would cause her to finally respond, “No, I’m not Steve,” and in that moment of taking her eyes off her lane, her concentration would be lost to the point that she stumbled and went down in a flail of limbs. Although at least one of Linda’s future friends wished she had grabbed the yelling man’s hands and placed them on her breasts while responding “NO, I’M LINDA,” she didn’t mess with him. And 51-year-old Linda, fully in charge of herself, didn’t cry, nor did she linger on the ice for dramatic impact, as a 10-year-old might. No. Instead, she hopped up, gripped her poles, and clapped her eyes on the tracks set by those who had gone before. Pushing, striding, looking forward to what lay ahead, she carried on, propelling herself through the dusky quarter-light to the finish line.

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Seven GIFs in Five: Friday, February 16

“There’s something about her face that makes her seem a little evil,” I told Byron as Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot glided onto the ice, readying themselves for their freeskate. “Don’t get me wrong: I love her nose and chin; they work together in a way that’s really arresting. But in my casting, I can’t help it: she’s always a villain.”

Although this patter was a legitimate expression of important things on my mind, my subconscious was probably trying to make the goings-on on the screen more interesting to Byron, traditionally a reluctant watcher of skating. This year, he’s been better able to hang in there during skating coverage, progressing to the point where he can yell “TWIZZLE SEQUENCE” when I quiz him about what dance pairs are doing. For a guy who, a year ago, called footwork sequences “prancing,” this ability to recognize what he’s seeing is a big advance. When I pet his knee and compliment him on Being a Better Skating Fan, he acknowledges, “I can remember ‘twizzle sequence’ because it reminds me of candy.”

Whatever works, pal. I can only remember what Mercutio does in Romeo and Juliet because his name sounds like “mercury” which is what’s inside old-school thermometers, and thermometers are shaped like tiny swords plus, also, if you get a really high fever, you can die. 

In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, you totally should take one of my literature classes.

As Byron and I stared at the screen for the next five minutes, not only were we assessing Savchenko’s face, we also were witnessing a truly fine program, every move executed to perfection, each partner hitting all the marks. For me, this was a relief after Massot had doubled a triple in the short program a few days before, putting him in the doghouse with the villainess in charge. It was his error that had them entering the final skate in fourth position, his role as “lesser skater” in the duo that rendered him the supplicant, his every posture one of “I hope I can be good enough, so she doesn’t lock me in the freezer again.”

At the end of their performance, both Massot and Savchenko knew it had gone well — they knew they had a shot at a medal better than the two bronzes Savchenko had won in previous Olympics with a different partner. They had been flawless. Now, it was a waiting game.

They watched the Canadians (who had already won a gold medal at these Olympics in the team competition). They watched the Chinese (who were in the lead before the freeskate). They watched, wincing along with the world, the Russians, whose music and costume choices caused even my friend Johnny Weir to crawl under his chair (“Nobody loves Christina Aguilera more than I do, but this pair is a little square to be giving us ‘Candyman’ realness”) and my other friend Leslie Jones to hurl costume-hate at her screen about “…that fuckery polk-a-dot shit…”.

Through each successive performance, they waited.

It’s the waiting done by Savchenko and Massot that has us all gathered here today. 

Because, my guys, their nerves-on-edge, twitching-like-they-were-jonesing, hearts-in-throat, second-stage-of-labor postures were something to see — better even than their spectacular triple twist, which Savchenko landed as softly as a young Massot creeping out of the freezer after she locked him in for boofing his prancing.

Oh, yes, for both Byron and me the other night, it was their wait that deserved the gold.

Never before in the history of the Kiss ‘N Cry had viewers been privy to the artistry and technique that went into this pairs’ use of —

introduced in 1924

originally intended only for removing cold cream

but later moving into a more diverse role as a receptacle for 

sneezes, coughs, and

the snot and tears of champions —

The Kleenex.

Ladies, gentlemen, and the non-binary gendered, I present to you now a story of triumph and joy told in seven GIFs featuring some of Massot and Savchenko’s finest work. Before you watch: grab a tissue.

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Six in Five: Thursday, February 15

Practical Uses for Jessie Diggins’ Potent Positivity

1. We could plug her into a power grid and have her light up Manhattan

2. We could seat her next to people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder and watch their spirits rise as her radiance seeps into their cells

3. We could plant her in the DMZ between North and South Korea — only ankle deep, with a lawn chair nearby — and count to ten as we watch the border dissolve

4. We could ask her to hold the pork roast we forgot to take out of the freezer before work; as soon as she’s clutching the hard block, we’d do well to preheat the oven

5. We could prop her with a stack of magazines in the basement come April — next to our seedlings that need a grow light around the clock; mid-July, the neighbors will be stopping by our gardens to compliment the vividness of our nasturtiums

6. We could ask her to exhale slowly into Mason jars — quickly screwing on the lids — and then open a store in the Mall of America called Diggin’ Light which is lined with shelves of Mason jar breath. Customers will pay $20 a pop for the opportunity to take home a whiff of her upbeat expiration, a little something they can unbottle on a particularly dark day

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Five Waxed Peeves

Things that Peeved Me about the Cross-Country Skiing Men’s Classic Sprint Race on the Olympics Last Night:

1. I’ll never be the sprint specialist from Switzerland.

2. There was no outlier competitor from Jamaica with Coke-bottle thick glasses for the world to get sentimental about.

3. No one took the opportunity at the starting line to enact a dramatic pantomime in which he couldn’t break through the flexible bar that blocked his legs, using overstated gestures and mock cry face as he pretended he was — oh, woe! — sthuck at the thtart. 

4. The Norwegian skier Johannes Klaebo did his thing he does and literally ran up the hills propelled by an ugly, no-technique motor — when he does this, his skis are incidental to his movement, not a part of any sort of stride or kick or leg extension, and apparently it makes his coaches wince — and here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with him running up the hills instead of using actual technique like his competitors; he’s not breaking any rules, and what he does serves him extremely well because — SPOILER ALERT — he won the whole thing masterfully, and passionate (Duluth) commentator Chad Salmela, while pointing out his unique approach up the hills, noted repeatedly that Klaebo is the most-talented men’s Nordic skier in the world, so I definitely am kind of into Johannes Klaebo at the same time I am peeved at him on the hills, and really, if I’m honest, my reaction to him is very personal because there’s this guy in our area who does all these walking races, as in official walking races with prizes and awards and such, and he makes the motions of speed walking so that 99.5% of onlookers think he’s walking, but for those of us in the know, like one certain cranky faded strawberry blonde hammering on this keyboard, we can see that what he does fits the technical definition of running, and I happen to know from the man who taught my Community Ed power walking class a bunch of years ago that this guy is notorious in the race walking community for running and letting people think it’s walking, even after he’s had official judges talk to him about his form and explain how he always has to have one foot on the ground and such, but this cheater guy just shucks off their counsel and enters the next walking race he can find with a prize and no official judges, and sometimes a certain cranky faded strawberry blonde who is hammering on this keyboard has entered those same races, and even though her body is not slim and her pelvis was, according to reports from her mother, out of alignment at birth which may be responsible for her knock-kneed-ness, this cranky lady is really strong and is a very good walker and could, potentially, win a prize with some legitimate walking except for the fact that cheater dude is in the race doing his fake-walk-that’s-actually-a-run, and so he beats her BECAUSE HE’S RUNNING, and boy did it make her feel good one time when her cousin’s wife (a physical therapist) who was watching a race they were both in congratulated her at the finish for being the first female walker (NOT THE FIRST OVERALL WALKER BECAUSE THE AFOREMENTIONED CHEATING PRIZE SNATCHER EDGED HER OUT) and then had to shout, “But he was running! What he was doing wasn’t walking!” — after which the cranky lady hugged her cousin’s wife really hard because at least one person saw that guy for what he was, and this is why I get peeved with Johannes Klaebo because I’ll bet at least one of his competitor’s wives is shouting in Estonia about how he’s running up the hills and not skiing, all of which is to say You go, Klaebo; you look like a four-year-old on roller skates climbing a staircase, but keep it up!

5. In every heat, the frontrunners did that thing near the finish line where, if they had a good lead, they stopped hustling, stopped trying, stopped racing during the race, so that they could cruise across the finish line without effort, all leisurely guy in a smoking jacket looking for his snifter of brandy instead of Olympian hauling relentlessly ass to the very end to get the best possible time. Listen, Cedric, this behavior is unnecessarily cocky. You’re in a race. Finish that fucker out like you’re lucky to be there.

Typing: 19:56

Editing: 8:04

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Six in Five: Tuesday, February 13

Unfunny comedians alive in the 1970s who shaped my sense of what was “funny” to a troubling extent simply because they were on Hollywood Squares, and the tv in our house was rarely turned off:

Peter Marshall: It is considered in bad taste to discuss two subjects at nudist camps. One is politics, what is the other? Paul Lynde: Tape measures.
Phyllis Diller: When I go to the beauty parlor, I always use the emergency entrance.
Peter Marshall: Back in the old days, when Great Grandpa put horseradish on his head, what was he trying to do? George Gobel: Get it in his mouth.
Peter Marshall: Do rosy cheeks always mean good health? Charley Weaver: Not if you’re sitting on a radiator!
Jo Anne Worley: I didn’t know Dr. Spock cared about people. I thought he was only interested in babies.
Peter Marshall: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss lived in the same place. Where did they all live?Wayland Flowers and Madame: At the YMCA!
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Thirty-Three in Eleven: Monday, February 12

Things the Fully Dressed Lady in the Sauna Did During Her 90-Second Visit:

1. Looked startled when I said, “If you want the light on, we can turn it back on. I just turned it off, but it’s no big deal to me either way”

2. Assured me it was fine to leave the light off

3. Dramatically felt her way, running her hands along the boards like a blind woman, as she climbed to the top bench

4. In what felt like an affectation for someone wearing sweatpants: carefully spread a towel on the bench before sitting down

5. Took off her Dr. Scholl’s slides

6. Put on her Dr. Scholl’s slides

7. Jumped a little when I hit the button on the wall that adds water to the rocks

8. Opened her Nalgene bottle

9. Gulped noisily from her Nalgene bottle

10. Energetically screwed closed her Nalgene bottle

11. Sighed loudly

12. Wiped the top of her scalp a bunch of times, smoothing back flyaway hairs

13. Unscrewed the lid of her Nalgene bottle

14. Gulped noisily from her Nalgene bottle

15. Energetically screwed closed her Nalgene bottle

16. Sighed loudly

17. Sat stiffly upright

18. Plucked at her t-shirt

19. Checked her watch

20. Opened her Nalgene bottle

21. Gulped noisily from her Nalgene bottle

22. Energetically screwed closed her Nalgene bottle

23. Sighed in a protracted exhale that added another layer of steam to the room

24. Stood up

25. Grabbed the edge of her towel

26. Carefully stepped down to the floor, feeling her way, running her hands along the surfaces like a blind woman exiting her seat on a train

27. Wished me a good afternoon as I dabbed a trickle of sweat running between my breasts

Things the Fully Dressed Lady in the Sauna Did Not Do During Her 90-Second Visit:

1. Get nudie

2. Lean back

3. Stop moving

4. Consider she might be able to weather 90 seconds in a sauna without repeated hydration

5. Relax even one Dr. Scholl’s-sheathed toe

6. Get any sweatier than her natural state of being — a looping kinetic anxiousness — keeps her all the time

Typing: 11:13


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Five in Five: Sunday, February 11

A recap, in case you missed the live coverage.

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On My Mind

Five in Five: Saturday, February 10

Neighbors I Never Really Knew:

1. In the fall of 1987, I did a semester in Dublin with my two best friends from college, Colleen and Guppie; we rented a flat together in the Sandymount suburb of the city. We had the downstairs, and above us lived two Asian tenants, a male and a female, whom we called The Chinese Acrobats due to their penchant for continuous thumping, clomping, and whamming. We never spoke to these housemates — their flat being up a staircase, beyond a closed door — unless they opened the door to call down “Telephone!” Thus, even though their faces are smudges in my memory, they will always remind me of an era when a ringing phone was was actually answered

2. The year after we graduated from college, Colleen, a friend named Dan, and I rented half of a duplex on Harriet Avenue in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood. On the main floor of the house lived a few “older” guys (maybe, like, 28?) whom we never got to know past quick hellos as we passed each other. Colleen remembers these housemates as “beer-soaked” before noting, “…then again we were pretty beer-soaked, too.” I remember one of them, slight of build, a thin blonde mullet topping his ubiquitous denim jacket, because he was kind enough to respond to my frantic knocking the time I saw a mouse in our apartment. Sloshing a little as he walked, he climbed the stairs to our place and did a requisite look through all the closets, scanning the counters and baseboards. We found neither mouse nor lasting friendship 

3. My first year of graduate school at the University of Idaho, I lived in the Alumni Residence Center, a concrete leviathan that housed males on one floor, females on another. While I became good friends with several of the women at my end of the hall, I never connected much with the other, hmmm, 40 females on that floor, not even during hundreds of trips to the shared bathroom. Over winter break, everyone cleared out except for one young woman, a meaty menace if ever I’d seen one, a flat-faced snarker named Cheyenne. When I returned to my room after break, my television was gone. Stolen. The theft was never solved EVEN THOUGH IT CLEARLY WAS CHEYENNE WHO TOOK IT. Not one to be daunted by loss of a small television set, I drove directly to the store and used money I didn’t have to buy a bigger, newer set that weighed 274 pounds. Getting it up the stairs to my room had me dripping with sweat, one lung partially collapsed, but victory was mine: there was no way the concrete leviathan that was Cheyenne could pick up that brute and make off with it when I went to Colorado for Spring Break. She might try, but the effort would bust her ribcage

4. After finishing graduate school, I landed a job teaching composition at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Since a full-time job teaching comp in 1993 paid $17,000/year, with no benefits, I would need to live on a tight budget, which is not easily achieved in most parts of Colorado. Fortunately, there was a cottage for rent behind a bigger house on Tejon Street, and it was going for $300/month. I snapped up that cottage and, despite living there for more than a year, never did speak to the scary looking guys — both of them with complicated facial hair, sleeves of tattoos, and massive belt buckles — who lived in the Big House up front. With some justification, I called them The Drug Dealers, but our interactions were non-existent outside of my saying “Hi” or asking them about the going rate for a kilo of coke

5. When we moved to the village of Ortahisar in the Cappadocia region of Turkey in 2010, we rented a 400-year-old Greek house not far from the center of town. Just across the narrow, dusty street lived an older couple who insisted we call them “komsu,” the Turkish word for “neighbor.” The fact that we never really got to know them had nothing to do with lack of effort, as they asked us in for tea many times, tried to plop the kids onto their donkey, and helped us set up our coal-burning soba stoves in the winter. Rather, it was the lack of common language that thwarted a friendship — that, and the fact that they were grasping, almost mercenary, in their desire to see the insides of our wallets. On the first day we met them, the wife went into her bedroom, took a headscarf out of a drawer, wrapped it around my head, and said, “Bes lira” (five lira). Then she started feeding us, pricing each item as we chewed. Turns out a jar of pekmez would also be “Bes lira!” The language barrier proved helpful, for we couldn’t afford the cost of their friendship**

(**with the Turkish words used here, the “s” should have a little tail hanging from it, but this blog won’t support such characters)  

Typing: 20:46

Editing: 8:03

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Five in Five

Five in Five: Friday, February 9

A long-simmering conversation has reached a boil this week in Duluth; everyone’s a’poppin’.

I mean, I wasn’t a’poppin’ because I don’t read the newspaper, and I try to avoid public conversations because they invariably make me hate people, but I discovered just how buzzy folks were getting when questions started hitting my DMs, and every other Facebook post I saw from locals was in search of a sparky comment thread. “As an educator, what do you think?” “As a parent, what do you think?”

To be straight-up honest here: once I read the article that’s got everyone up in arms, I pretty much shrugged and thought, “Um, good? Is ‘good’ enough of a response?”

But, of course, if conversation is to happen, elaboration helps. So after I read the article about how Duluth Public Schools will no longer be requiring students to read and discuss To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I tried to work up the energy to engage in discussin’. 

Mostly, though, “Good” sums up my feelings. 

Whether to include classics that use racist language as part of the school curriculum is a debate that’s been raging for decades. That some action is finally happening indicates policy might be finally catching up with the current climate. Yes, people love these books. Yes, people worry that we’re erasing history if we don’t make teenagers read books about how it used to be. (STILL IS, btfw) Yes, people worry when a rule smacks of books being banned or censored. Got it. I got all that.

Still, of the change in curriculum, I say “Good.”

When a former student messaged to ask my thoughts, I wrote back: 

You know, it doesn’t bother me. In fact, if black people (repped by the NAACP) are saying “Teaching these books is hurtful to us — they contribute to continuing racism,” then I’m okay with listening to the thoughts of those whose lived experiences are so different from mine. Also, the books aren’t being banned; they’ll still be in the libraries and available for students. And if students want to choose to read them for an essay they’ll write, they can. Basically, this is a change in curriculum. Public school teachers never get to chose what they teach; they are told by the district. So this change is not limiting the rights of teachers to choose. They always have to do what they’re told. Rather, this change seems to be about sending a message of “Maybe we’re finally ready to move away from an era where all the classics we require our kids to read are written by white people, centered on white people, and use the language that is a legacy of white people’s oppression.”

I’d rather, in the books my kids are required to read, that the institutions sending messages about what’s “good” and “important” ask them to read some books by black authors that are centered on the black experience and POV. Removing these two classics makes room for books that do just that.

Also, the objectionable word in these books is “nigger.” When I consider a different scenario, one in which my kids are required to read books that treat women as lesser citizens, casually calling them “cunts” because, hey, that’s what women have often been called historically, my reaction is: I’m not sure I want them to receive those messages through the school curriculum.

In the last couple days, as well, a friend put out a call on behalf of a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune who was having trouble finding people who would chat with her and give quotes for a story she’s assigned to write on this Duluth debate. So I offered. After we spoke on the phone, I later sent her a follow-up message:

…my 17-year-old, Allegra, just got home from a ski meet, and I asked her thoughts about To Kill a Mockingbird. She says she’s glad she read it but that it’s not the only book that can teach young people about the history of racism in the U.S. For her, she has learned about racism from a variety of novels that she’s read, but, as she notes, not all kids are readers, so we can’t trust they will be part of racial discussions and learning unless there is some book required in high school English classes that addresses this difficult topic. Thus, she firmly believes there should be a novel required in the curriculum that asks classes to discuss race — but there’s no reason it needs to be To Kill a Mockingbird. As my husband and I talked with her about this, we noted there are many, many books that raise the issue and that we believe it would be more effective if students learn about racism through a book that is written by a person of color, with POC characters, so that the lens of the narrative is focused on the oppressed experience, not white perceptions of people of color.

Later last night, I got a message from a librarian friend in Pennsylvania, asking my thoughts. We had a good conversation about the difficulty of letting go of much-beloved books, especially when they are so ingrained in the culture. Yet I maintain my initial stance of “Good” about the change in curriculum.

It’s white people who are buzzing. It’s white people who are bemoaning the change. It’s white people who are worried that their kids won’t learn about the history of racism without these books being taught in the schools. It’s white people who need to learn to shut up and listen. 

Because it’s black people, Native people, Latino people, Asian people — the millions with brown skin — who have been the target of racism, historically and currently. They have suffered lasting traumas under the systems white people created. Their children have had to sit in classrooms and ingest the words of white writers depicting white characters as saviors, especially when it comes to those poor black folk. And it’s people with brown skin who breathe the air of racism every hour of every day who are saying, “These books are hurtful to us. They are not helping to alleviate the problem.”

So why on Oprah’s round earth can’t white people shut the fuck up about their feelings and worries and hear what they are being told? The people oppressed say “Requiring these books is not good,” and the oppressors say, “But…”

I’m very glad there will be space in the public school English curriculum for different books to be taught. There are thousands of amazing novels written by authors with brown skin, telling amazing stories of people with brown skin — rich, evocative, empathy-building books that will help kids of color in the classroom feel seen and celebrated, that will jar white kids into understanding that although the focus has always been on them, there are other ways, other pains, other lives, and it’s essential they learn about our racist realities from the perspectives of those who have been held down the hardest and the longest. If white people are ever going to dismantle the systems they have built, they first have to be able to see them for what they are. 

So good on you, Duluth Public Schools. And if you’re struggling to find new books to plug into the curriculum, and you’re not in the mood for classics by Sherman Alexie, Maya Angelou, R. K. Narayan, Jean Toomer, Margaret Walker, Lorraine Hansberry, Julia Alvarez, Jorge Luis Borges, Langston Hughes, Chinua Achebe, Osamu Dazai, Claude McKay, Paule Marshall, Zitkala-Sa, Toni Morrison, James Weldon Johnson, Junot Diaz, Sui Sin Far, Luther Standing Bear, Alice Walker, Nawal El Saadawi, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Winnemucca, Es’kia Mphahlele, Sandra Cisneros, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Baldwin, or Isabelle Allende, please feel free to consider a few of the books collaged below. 

I’m an educator. I’m a parent. And I would LOVE for my students and my kids to read every last one of them.


Typing time: Can I get all blowhardy here and say “400 years”?
Editing time: Well, I mean, the spelling of Es’kia Mphahlele is something I had to look up.

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