Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In case of emergency, take off your high-heeled shoes

“In case of emergency, loosen your tie and collar… take off your high-heeled shoes.”

This instruction, delivered via the Turkish Airlines in-flight safety video in a sophisticated female voice, caught my attention during a recent trip to Istanbul.

It offers, I feel, a significant lesson in disaster preparedness which also can be applied to a variety of situations on the ground.

While walking passengers through some worst-case scenarios, the in-flight announcement offers a subtle reminder that how we present ourselves to the world is important.

Harkening back to a more glamorous era, it raises the bar on travel attire. Please note that it is not necessary to “unzip your hoodie and kick off your Crocs” if you find yourself in peril. On land as in the air, dressing with care signals self-esteem and respect for others. (Remember the flap over the Northwestern University lacrosse team members who wore flip flops to the White House?)

In life, as in travel, it is important to put your best foot forward.

Smoothly scripted though they may be, in-flight safety videos are designed to remind us that life can be capricious: If your life were to take an unexpected turn today, what would you want to be wearing?

They also cause us to contemplate, however subliminally, the prospect of our own mortality. And this begs a deeper question: Faced with imminent death, how – and who – would you want to be?

Top photo from Photobucket.com: http://i1057.photobucket.com/albums/t392/Miss-Sexylegs/b7411f5d.jpg

Monday, August 6, 2012

Yes is the answer

When John Lennon first met Yoko Ono he experienced a rare moment of cosmic connection.

Invited to climb a ladder at the Indicia Gallery in London, where Ono was preparing a conceptual art exhibit, he used a magnifying glass suspended from a string to find the word “yes” inscribed in tiny writing on a canvas on the ceiling.

The installation was simple. Yet the effect of the Nov. 9, 1966 encounter was enduring, and the affirmative power of this story has held up through countless retellings and lives on, like the legend of John and Yoko, as part of our collective cultural history.

For Lennon, it was a seminal moment. From his subsequent relationship with Ono he derived fresh energy and inspiration. While distancing himself from the Beatles and all they had become, he did not move away from his music but rather toward something bigger – art as social activism.

In short, he decided to stand for something, melding his music with Ono’s talent for performance art to promote causes such as world peace via Bed-Ins in Amsterdam and Montreal.

At its best, conceptual art provokes thought, and Save the Date, an upcoming performance by Kathryn Cornelius at the District’s Corcoran Gallery of Art is already promising some mind games.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Cornelius will explore “the life cycle of marriage and divorce and the wedding ceremony’s complex mix of private emotion, public spectacle, social expectation, and state power” by getting married to, and divorced from, seven consecutive suitors – male and female – who have proposed to her online.

It's a kind of Bed-In for our age.

“With the passing of Prop 8 in California, and more recent turns in North Carolina, the looming presidential race is already teeing up the topic of marriage in its political rhetoric as ideological artillery for the coming election,” Cornelius writes on the Save the Date website, a precursor to the performance complete with “registry” and “propose to me” tabs. “What better location than the Corcoran’s liminal space, in clear-glass view of the White House, to stage a massive spectacle of the lifecycle of marriage and divorce?”

Whatever you think, Cornelius promises to make you think. I think John and Yoko would approve.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Windex vs. Dettol – the smackdown

If you’ve ever seen My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, you’ll recall the patriarch’s love affair with Windex, which he used to clean his glasses, hands and car and prescribed as a cure-all for a variety of ailments and skin blemishes.

“Put some Windex.”

But if you’ve ever lived in the Middle East – or even stopped by – you’ll know that the real big gun in the household arsenal is not the beautiful blue window cleaning spray, but a screw-top bottle filled with a yellowish liquid that turns cloudy on contact with water: Dettol, a product with almost limitless powers.

This distinctively-scented antiseptic is used in its various forms to clean toilets, floors and kitchen counters, wash dishes, rinse vegetables and fruit, disinfect cuts, bites and wounds and as a gargle for sore throats.

It also comes fetchingly packaged as a bar of yellow soap, great for washing people, pets and clothing. And let’s throw in curtains and upholstery, too, for good measure. (A visit to Dettol’s website reveals it’s now being marketed in multiple forms, from disinfectant wipes to hand sanitizer).

Last week an Arab friend was reminiscing about Dettol, which is manufactured by Reckitt Benckiser, an Anglo-Dutch household products and drugs group, and was in 2011 ranked as the 48th most trusted brand in India by The Brand Trust Report.

Yes, India, which is one of the world’s top 10 economies. So that’s a pretty big deal.

Anyway, Mahmoud remembered his mother daubing his skinned knees with diluted Dettol on a cotton ball, while the maid used it to mop the floor and his father poured it into the toilet bowl.

“What the hell is this stuff?” he wondered, examining the bottle’s English-language label with its little sword logo. “It’s a colonial conspiracy!”

Who knows, he may have been onto something. A quick Google search after our conversation unearthed the following bit of trivia from the unreliably sourced yet relied upon Wikipedia: “In Australia, Dettol spray has been shown to be lethal to cane toads, an invasive species that was introduced from Hawaii. … Spraying the disinfectant at close range has been shown to cause fast-acting death.”

So if you are a cane toad, or even remotely resemble one, steer well clear of the Middle East if you value your life. You have been warned.

And for all the rest of you human beings, forget about the Windex.

“Put some Dettol!”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Desperate screenwriters, and other tales of writer's block

Oh, how I relished ABC’s recently concluded Desperate Housewives, a series stuffed with so many hooks and quippy one-liners that it would put a fisherman’s tackle box to shame.

I was full of admiration for the screenwriters, who managed to create story arcs for the ladies of Wisteria Lane that blended the sympathetic and the sinister and tapped into the dark side of suburbia without becoming dark. Quite a feat.

So when I came across Tanner Stransky’s excellent  roundup of the highs and lows of the series in Entertainment Weekly, (#1200, March 30, 2012) I was fascinated to read about the “back end” of the series – the feet paddling furiously under the surface to keep the storyline moving smoothly forward:

“As the show burned through stories, plotlines became more outlandish, as evidenced by the annual ‘disaster episode,’ in which the ladies' hometown of Fairview was struck by a tornado, fire, plane crash, and riot, consecutively,” Stransky writes, going on to quote coexec producer Bob Daily: “A great part of our day in the writers' room is spent saying, ‘We've done that...’ We did, toward the end, start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left?’ We're not in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.”

Writer's block happens – even to the cleverest  writers.

It also happens to people who aren’t writers.

In the April 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner interviews Julia Roberts and Mike Nichols:

“VANITY FAIR: I always wondered if actors feel the way writers sometimes feel when they haven’t written in a while—this fear of shutting down. What they call writer’s block, for lack of a better word.
JULIA: I think all creative people feel that way.
MIKE: Yes.
JULIA: I’ve certainly felt that way. Every first day of any job, you’re getting ready and you think, I hope it’s in there. I hope it comes out when it’s supposed to. You have to feel that way; you have to be nervous.
MIKE: It’s not something you can count on, by definition. I do think people go through cycles. The people I’ve admired most have gone through cycles, lost themselves briefly, usually in the middle, and then they’d found a way to keep generating it. I think it’s like Dante’s Inferno—you do find yourself in a dark wood one way or another. And then you get stronger after that. It’s such a fleeting and mysterious thing.”

But what can be done about writer's block when it strikes? On March 19, NPR's Robert Siegel spoke with author Jonah Lehrer about his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. In the NPR segment, Lehrer says that when you encounter an obstacle, you should step away from your work:

“What you should do then — when you hit the wall — is get away from your desk. Step away from the office. Take a long walk. Daydream. Find some way to relax. Get those alpha waves. Alpha waves are a signal in the brain that's closely correlated with states of relaxation. And what scientists have found is that when people are relaxed, they're much more likely to have those big 'A ha!' moments, those moments of insight where these seemingly impossible problems get solved. So when you hit the wall, the best thing you can do is probably take a very long, warm shower. The answer will only arrive once you stop looking for it."

During a May 8 talk at the National Geographic Society, travel writer Joyce Maynard revealed that she also believes in stepping away.

“I’m such an active person,” she said. “ If I’m sitting at my desk and it’s not going well, I get up and take a hike, swim, scrub my floor. And I consider that writing.”

While she is engaged in these other activities, Maynard said, her mind is still at work, mulling over the story she is writing in a process that is “just as important as typing time.”

Based on this collective wisdom, there are two key points to take to heart when you are struggling unsuccessfully to solve a creative problem.

First, remember that you are not alone, as even the most talented people experience this occasionally.

Second, do not sit staring blankly at your keyboard. Step away. Do something else. And maybe when you come back, the desperation will be gone, and in its place will be the hooks, plot twists and quippy one-liners that have been eluding you.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The weight of words

Words can be heavy. Choosing them carefully can be difficult. So much thinking, so much typing, so much chewing of the pen. But words can also be light and fun. Crosswords, Scrabble, Boggle for the game lovers. Words that rhyme or just make you giggle. I've been playing with word clouds this evening, pasting different texts into TagCrowd. Here's a word cloud of the posts from this blog:

created at TagCrowd.comhttp://tagcrowd.com">TagCrowd.com>

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Joyce Maynard: On diving in and sometimes failing

Travel writer Joyce Maynard had many stories to share during a May 8 talk at the National Geographic Society – and a few cautionary tales.

In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by fellow travel writer Don George, Maynard spoke of her most memorable journeys, her love of water – she now owns a home on the shores of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, the deepest in Central America – and her joys and missteps as a parent.

Chief among these was her story, told publicly for the first time, of her failed adoption of two Ethiopian orphans, and of her decision to take them on a disastrous road trip around Ethiopia before returning with them to the United States.

These decisions were “foolish and naïve, but my impulses were honest and well intentioned,” she said, noting that this nuanced story,  neither simple nor quick to tell, served to illustrate “how easily, especially in the culture we live in now, failure of understanding of the depth of a story can occur.”

Speaking out forthrightly about painful and personal matters such as this is part of Maynard’s appeal as a writer. Her “deep and abiding belief in telling the truth” springs in part from her own experience as the daughter of an alcoholic father – “a brilliant and extraordinary man who got drunk every night, and we never spoke about it.”

“I know what it would have meant to me to have some girl out there write about a father who got drunk,” she said. “As long as people don’t tell the kind of story that I sadly have to tell, there will be more.”

Maynard, now 58, also has been criticized for speaking out about her relationship as a young woman with reclusive author J.D. Salinger, now deceased. She described Salinger as “a bitter person” who she claims wrote “hundreds and hundreds of letters to teenage girls.”

Not all the evening’s stories were bad ones, of course.  Maynard spoke of the importance of traveling with children, and described her three natural children as her “biggest adventure.”

Without travel, “you think that life in your particular culture is the way it is,” she said. Afterwards, you realize it is just one way of living. “As soon as you have entered a culture and sat down and broken bread with them, you experience their lives on a whole different level. … I haven’t traveled to a place where I haven’t made a friend.”

But that is not to say that you ever truly belong there.

While living in Guatemala, Maynard said she had finally accepted that “I will always be a foreigner there,” and had come to terms with her status as an outsider.

That can be a good thing, she said, as writing about a place requires that you “recognize with humility that you don’t know it.” At the same time, “when you distance yourself from the familiar place, you see the familiar place better.”

Asked about traveling to dangerous places, Maynard said she was “just about never afraid,” as her most dangerous life experiences had occurred in her home state of New Hampshire.

“There’s danger everywhere,” she said.  “And the biggest danger is going through your life and not experiencing it.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Art – and memory – know no borders

On Friday night I attended the opening of an exhibit of mixed-media paintings by the fabulous Palestinian-American artist Manal Deeb titled “From There.” (The exhibit runs through May 11 at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery, 2425 Virginia Ave NW, Washington, D.C., 20037)

Deeb’s paintings speak to her Palestinian heritage across time and place, addressing issues of identity and memory. Through a trancelike blur of white, like a snowstorm or a dream, works like “Delirious in Exile” reveal swirling colors, snatches of sacred verses from the Quran and stylized eyes.

Other works incorporate bits of bark, burlap, traditional Palestinian embroidery and Arabic calligraphy rendered sharp, like thorns, and offer shadowy glimpses of the faces of refugees and Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock. 

Part dream, part memory, part mourning, part longing, the paintings also address the issues of survival and authenticity in a new culture. In her artist’s statement, Deeb asks: “What does it take for a person to persist from one time to another, that is, for the same person to be real at all the times?”

In a striking self-portrait, “From There,” Deeb appears partially obscured by a screen of white paint. Though eyes without faces are a recurring motif in her other works, in this portrait Deeb offers her face without eyes, without a window into her soul.

It strikes a precarious balance; the exact point at which one cannot tell if her face is being obscured or revealed. But given the jut of her chin and the smile on her lips, I like to think it is the latter, and that she will emerge, unfragmented, into the light.

Memories, dreams, reality: She is from there, and it is hers.

*** The poems accompanying these images were written by Iyad Hayatleh, a Palestinian poet living in Scotland whom Deeb met via the Internet. The opening lines from my favorite:

“There – far away
where the sky, just a bows length from a sigh
overshadows the doors of the houses
born out of tents
as it dries the tears of old women
who weep for the warmth of homes they left --
which remain on their eyelashes
wherever they dwell
wherever they go”

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A third culture princess

It was a rainy night in London when I turned on the television set and was swiftly transported, as if by magic, to a “mystical land known as India.”

By the end of the movie – A Little Princess, the 1995 film based on the 1905 children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett – I had cried my way through a box of tissues and couldn’t stop. So I phoned a South African friend who I knew had also experienced the pain of homesickness, of longing for a faraway place where “the sky is all different colors, like a peacock’s tail.”

The story of Sara Crewe, a girl born in India who moves to New York at the start of World War I, is the classic third culture kid narrative. (*) Sara, whose parents are English and American (like mine, it so happens) has spent her childhood in India (mine was spent in the Middle East). It is the place she calls home; but at the same time it is not her home. So when her father goes off to serve in the war, she is brought “home” to New York, and enters Miss Minchin’s Boarding School.

Here she is noticeably “different,” attracting both the distain and the delight of the other girls for, among other things, her attitude toward race and the exotic stories she tells from the Ramayana.

She introduces her classmates to a new way of thinking, a new way of living: a global perspective.

But following an unfortunate reversal of fortune, she finds herself both fatherless and penniless. For a time she loses the belief in magic that has sustained her, her desire to tell stories and her sense of self.

Much of the beauty of this story lies in its message that kindness begets kindness, and in the way the other girls help Sara regain her identity, holding out to her shining fragments of the stories she has shared. But for me, the most powerful moments are those in which Sara encounters Ram Dass, an Indian immigrant who is caring for the rich old man next door.

That visceral recognition of someone from home, a kindred spirit who understands on a deep level who you are and where you come from, is at the heart of the immigrant experience. It’s the reason immigrants band together, seek each other out, find comfort in their tribe.

But it’s also the very essence of the third culture experience. The mutual recognition in these cases is less obvious to the casual observer – in this case a little white girl and an Indian man – but no less authentic: It is, in the words of the film, a heart kindling a heart.

Cue the swirling snowflakes and the sitar music.

* According to American sociologist David C. Pollock, “a Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The waters that divide us, unite us

Nationalism is what comes to mind when I think of the Navy, or in fact any branch of the armed services, anywhere. After all, isn't defending the nation what the Navy is all about?

According to the New Recruits Handbook: "The mission of the United States Navy is to protect and defend the right of the United States and our allies to move freely on the oceans and to protect our country against her enemies."

As the seaborne branch of the U.S military, the Navy shares the mission of the U.S. Armed Forces "to prepare and conduct prompt and sustained combat operations in support of the national interest."

The Navy exists to protect our national interest, not the global one. And while it is careful to promote diversity within its ranks -- of race, socio-economic status, gender (and much more recently, sexual orientation), at its core, its ethos is "us and them:" America's interests first, then the interests of our allies, then everyone else.

Except in the sense that it works to maintain good borders, and good borders make good neighbors, the Navy does not promote globalism -- or so I thought until a few days ago when I came across this quote at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"To shipmates from other lands
The waters that divide us, unite us."

If art is the universal language, I thought, there also must be a universal language of mariners.

Regardless of their national allegiance, sailors understand one another instinctively and intuitively. They know the joys and dangers of the wide, wild ocean, and they know what it means to be, in the words of the Naval Hymn, "in peril on the sea."

In the eyes of shipmates from other lands, sailors find mutual respect. Though their loyalties -- to country and to the fraternity of seafarers -- occasionally conflict, rubbing together like tectonic plates inside them, they are first and foremost citizens of the ocean, over which no nation has mastery.

"The waters that divide us, unite us."

Monday, February 27, 2012

"Circus, spaghetti, sex and cinema"

Tonight I’m inspired by the artistic process of the people who write and direct movies.

The Academy Awards are on, and my Sunday reading has included magazine and newspaper interviews with a number of screenwriters and directors describing their craft, work methods and challenges.

These are no Hollywood hacks or flash-in-the-pan hit-makers – all are well-established storytellers whose names – or whose movies – you will probably recognize.

I decided to pull the thought that struck me most out of each of the articles I read today and see what I could learn. So here goes:

Speaking about her movie In Darkness, an Oscar-nominated Polish film about the Holocaust, director Agnieszka Holland (The Washington Post, February 24) “lists many potential dangers of addressing the Holocaust in a fictionalized feature: ‘Being moralistic, being sentimental, looking for some good-feeling lesson coming from this experience, because I think it’s impossible to have one. Making all the Jewish characters some kind of faceless angels. To make it black and white. To make it accusatory. To recreate clichés that have already been told many times.”

Holland did extensive research for the film, which was set in the sewer systems of Lvov, visiting “at least 10 sewer systems in different cities.” She also had the original screenplay, which was in English, translated into several languages to convey authenticity. “Only a small part of the audience can appreciate it,” she tells the Post's Mark Jenkins. “But I think it’s like music. If the music is different, you feel the movie differently.”

Screenwriter John Logan, interviewed by John Heilpern in the March 2012 Vanity Fair, describes his work:

“I love what I do, but the screenplays don’t happen in the white heat of inspiration. It’s the oldest trick in the book. I get up at five o’clock in the morning and I work flat out until I’m exhausted. I may not be the smartest guy on the block, but goddammit, I am the most tenacious! … It’s like the salt flats. The sun rises – I write. The sun goes down – I’m done.”

Later in the same issue, Charlotte Chandler writes about master filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini: “Fellini told me, “I feel my inheritance as a film director is from art, and Michelangelo’s is from literature. My films, like my life, are summed up in circus, spaghetti, sex, and cinema.”

The Washington Post’s February 26 business section examines the leadership style of three leading directors – Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg. A few thoughts from each:

Allen “displays a remarkable sense of calm when at work, a confidence and security that are the antithesis of his public image, and both the crew and actors take their cue from him.”

He trusts the actors to do their job [“hire the best actors, shut up and get out of their way”] runs a set that lacks “preciousness,” remains accessible and keeps things simple -- he works “mainly in single master shots and doesn't bother shooting coverage from numerous angles.”

“Spielberg’s obsessive-compulsive nature helps account for his intense concentration on his craft, his unrivaled technical skills and his insistence on perfection from his crews. But he has learned how to surround himself with a small comfort zone of longtime collaborators he trusts implicitly, …”

Learning to delegate was an important early lesson for Spielberg, the article notes. But his “ability to do it all himself, if need be, serves him well.”

Scorsese is singled out for the way he marries passion and discipline; structure and improvisation.

He is quoted saying: “I was raised with gangsters and priests, that’s it, nothing in between. I wanted to be a cleric. I guess the passion I had for religion wound up mixed with film. And now as an artist, in a way, I’m both gangster and priest.”

Hard work and discipline, authenticity and careful research, confidence in their own vision coupled with a willingness to bend and to let others shine through -- that's what it takes to create a great story, according to these screenwriters and directors. That, plus passion: the risk-taking of gangsters and the faith of priests.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Inspiration in a dry time

Anyone who works in a creative field knows that sometimes inspiration just dries up.

Words fail. The muse snoozes.

And whatever medium you work in – be it words or music or film or photographs or paint – sometimes you just aren’t feeling it. The mojo is missing.

In journalism this can happen when the excitement of covering a murder trial is followed by an assignment to report on the ongoing discussion about the jurisdiction’s sewer system expansion.

Writing about it is important, necessary, and your job depends on it. You try to find a new angle, make it interesting, but guess what… it’s still shit.

Does it matter, you ask? Well yes, yes it does. Writers who have found a “fresh way to tell a routine story” are praised for their ability to spin straw into gold. And this knowledge creates a special kind of angst among writers, who will turn a story every which way to find a new way in.

Like an overzealous hairdresser, once you have messed with a story for too long, it is ruined beyond repair. There’s nothing to do but file it, and move on. Except that in the process, you’ve also damaged your self esteem.

Unfortunately, despondency does not nurture creativity.

So where do you turn when inspiration fails? I turn to my friends, and warm myself on the embers of their creativity while I wait for my own winter to end.

This week I’ve been inspired by friends Ariel Watson (artist, musician), Jehovah Jones (writer), Leta Dunham (photographer) and Jesse Kopp, (the talented brother of a high school friend). I’ve also been inspired by fellow Third Culture Kid Dave Herrling, an artist who paints sound – how cool is that?!

Who do you turn to for inspiration in a dry time?