Thursday, May 02, 2013

states of wonder: teen film prodigies and what i read in april

1. just imagine the horizontal plane as facebook

Margot, my church therapist (not to be confused with my regular therapist, couples therapist, physical therapist or radiation therapist), was talking about the horizontal plane and the vertical plane. The former is the everyday stuff, the latter is the sublime. They intersect and form a cross, she said, unless cross imagery makes you uncomfortable. People at All Saints are always apologizing for sounding too Christian.

Fabulous jewelry doesn't make me uncomfortable.
The good thing about Shitty Life Events, she said, is that they break you open and allow you to access the vertical plane, where God and Jesus and Buddha and the best book you ever read live.

I mean, she said, the horizontal plane is still valid and important. Some people live their whole lives there. (And when I studied Margot’s amazing preppy angora cardigan, I believed that she had an investment in the horizontal plane.) But they’re missing out.

Of course I wanted to take this as Proof That I Was A Better Person than all those people out there getting what they wanted. But back when I was getting what I wanted more regularly, I didn’t like the implication that God was on Team Shitty Life Events. I mean, I think the point is that God is on Team Everyone, but sometimes we see our team captain more closely than other times.

2. lords of covenant house

Tuesday night AK and I went to a mini film festival at Covenant House, the shelter where our friend Laura teaches a film class. These are all kids who’ve had more than their fair share of Shitty Life Events. Some of them had the excess fat or pungent body odor to show for it. Most of them, I think, had the wisdom—because in order to stay aboard the tight ship that is Covenant House, they have to stay off drugs and go through a lot of programs. These were the kids who put the “open” in being broken open.

The first film was a documentary in the spirit of Lords of Dogtown, by a guy named Eduardo. He wore big plugs in his ears and wrapped his wrists in leopard-print fabric when he skateboarded on the Venice boardwalk. He grew up in SoCal but moved to Mexico with his mom after his dad left, when he was thirteen or fourteen. In Mexico, kids called him a fag and tried to fight him. They associated skateboarding with homosexuality and Satan worship. Not that there was anything wrong with homosexuality, Eduardo told the camera, but he believed in God. He went to church. Not that he was a Christian or anything.

Not Eduardo. Not a Satan worshiper. Possibly a homosexual, I don't know.
But there was the time when he was sixteen and put a gun in his mouth. When he was working up the courage to pull the trigger, he looked at the skate poster on his wall. He saw an angel in the shadow next to the poster. God wanted him to live. To keep skating and drawing. He showed the camera a notebook with an illustration of a face with flames flaring out from its angel head.

He closed the film saying, “One life, one love, one God, hang loose.” He stuck his tongue out.

The other films included:
1) a giddy love story to editing software called A Day in the Life of a Teleporter
2) a meta-film in which a serial killer offed everyone on set
3) a very short film of someone running backward
4) footage of a black girl with bright purple eye shadow performing a Wiccan moon ritual and chanting, “I love the Goddess and the Goddess loves me”
5) a film about a girl and her mom arguing in the bathroom, dedicated to Tyler Perry

…and my other favorite, ‘90s Babies, in which all these kids in their early twenties waxed nostalgic about WWF, Pokemon and Resident Evil the video game.

“You would hear the crushing and the squishing,” one guy said wistfully.

They remembered That ‘70s Show and how their dad used to berate them just like the dad on that show. I wondered if it was the equivalent of children of the seventies getting nostalgic for American Graffiti.

“If you didn’t grow up in the nineties, you don’t understand how we think,” one kid said.

Except I think I do.

And then the credits rolled as “Gangnam Style” played in the background.

3. here is what this eighties* baby read in april

The Pigman by Paul Zindel: It's easy to see why this became a classic of the young adult genre. I suspect it was ahead of its time in depicting adults as highly fallible and teens as carrying on rich inner and outer lives below the radar of the authorities. Although some elements are charmingly dated (like using @$#! for "hell" and a subplot about rotary phones), the voices of narrators John and Lorraine are timeless. AK said the juxtaposition makes the novel feel oddly Canadian--relevant and fresh but just a little off. I was especially impressed with the ending, in which the young narrators contemplate how their parents aren't awful so much as worn down by the harshness of life. They know this will be their fate too, but with luck they'll maintain a little of the Pigman's magic.

American Born Chinese by Gene Yuen Lang: Yang tells three narratives grounded in varying degrees of realism: At one end of the spectrum is the seemingly autobiographical story of Jin, a Chinese-American kid whose FOB-ish BFF alternately supports and embarrasses him. At the opposite end is a folktale of the Monkey King, who denies his simian nature to achieve godlike status. In between is a white kid named Danny, who is visited yearly by a mysterious stereotypical cousin, who is Chinese in the "me play joke, me go pee-pee in your Coke" tradition. Yang's illustrations have clean lines and comic-style pops and zaps, with the Monkey King's thread being the most vivid. Although the thematic parallels are evident from the start (each protagonist struggles with identity and shame), Yang weaves the strands together graphically and narratively in unexpected ways.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: So many elements of this book are tough to pull off: fictional Amazonian tribes? Miracle cures for infertility and diseases? Plot developments that result from incredible coincidences? Not to mention the whole "American learns about herself while encountering the third world" thing, which can be straight-up racist in the wrong hands. But Patchett is so good with mundane details, and builds her world so slowly, that by the time the crazy shit happens, we've drunk the Kool-Aid (or eaten the magic blue mushrooms, in this case).

As always, everything feels so real and multifaceted that the point of the book seems almost superfluous, but it's there--and it's about the inevitability of hard choices, I think. In a world that is one big, delicate ecosystem, delaying parenthood has consequences, curing malaria has consequences, teaching a boy to drive a boat has consequences. But the only way to really live is to stare unflinchingly at all of it, as the protagonist learns to do--in her own way--from her wizened mentor.

Final note, which contains speculative spoilers: Did anyone else think Marina was pregnant at the end of the novel? You know, because the trees started repulsing her and stuff?

On a vision quest with Ann Patchett.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton: I can see why this is a classic: It was one of the first YA novels to depict teens with tough, working-class live, and it's full of dreamy bad boys with hearts of gold. But even though S.E. Hinton could write circles around my sixteen-year-old self and should be lauded as the prodigy she was, it still feels like a first novel--on-the-nose dialogue, improbable events and a loooottt of time devoted to describing the boys' looks and tastes in snack food. There were a lot of sentences like, "People say I'm good-looking because I have golden hair and green eyes, but I think my eyes are more gray. Soda, he's the good-looking one, like a movie star." Either there's some underlying homo-eroticism (and I'm sure there is in any real gang) or S.E. Hinton was crushing out on her characters. Not that I blame her.

menudo & Herb by Myriam Gurba: There is an odd satisfaction in good bowel movement, and these short, punny, offbeat poems have a similar effect. They're as silly (and sometimes dark) as nursery rhymes, but once in a while you have to dig to "get it." And sometimes the "it" is a finger that points back at you and says, "Ha! You were looking for me?! I'm a pot of fool's gold!" As with most of Gurba's writing, there are refrains of the sexual and racial and scatological. Her irreverent approach opens up the possibility for dialogue, although it's hard to see this as a text in any _____ Studies class. And I mean that in a good way.

Here's a typically atypical poem, titled "On the Plate Between Mashed Potatoes and Turkey":

In Little Armenia, they serve tiny baklava and Kim
Kardashian's ass is normal-sized.

(Get it?)

*I mean, I was born in 1977, but since I wasn’t a very culturally savvy two-year-old, I consider myself a child of the eighties.


Claire said...

Um, yeah. I think kids of the 90s (or any age) would be surprised to find that people even 20 years older could get most of their "nostalgic" references. Duh. They might be more self-absorbed though. ;)

What a collection of therapists you have, good on ya!

Reading this as an atheist, I feel a bit anti-team which is not necessarily ideal, but there isn't really a Team Atheist.

I remember a library patron who'd been to Italy telling me I should go and I could meet people at church where a lot of ex-pats go. When I said I wasn't religious, he said, "Oh, that doesn't matter. It's just for networking." I would never be that sort of hypocrite. It's good to see your helpful, non-hypocritical side to religion though.

Cheryl said...

There is a Team Atheist, but in my experience they tend to be an odd, embattled bunch--I mean the people who join societies and go on the radio to argue with religious people (who can also be an odd, embattled team).

But I think my personal version of God would look pretty similar to a lot of atheists' versions of Love or The Universe. I don't think theism and atheism are inherently opposites. That's why I'm including good books on the vertical plane--if you've experienced something that made you feel like the world was bigger than the sum of its parts, I think you've experienced the vertical plane.