What We’re Doing Wrong – a Lesson from the Oscars

Is it just me, or is anyone else still reeling from the events that occurred during the Academy Awards last night?

It’s still kind of fascinating to me that we can see culture reflected so much in the gathering of a very narrow sampling of the population — the celebrities who make it to the Oscars, that is — but we saw examples, both positive and negative, of a churning society several times last night. Even before the Oscars began, the hashtag #AskHerMore was floating around the Internet with great zest; and during the ceremony, the complexity of the human race was even further revealed: Sean Penn’s arguably racist comment about Alejandro Iñarritu’s green card, Iñarritu’s demand for respect for the citizens of Mexico, John Legend’s comment that a civil rights issue that happened over 50 years ago still relates to today’s society, speeches promoting awareness of ALS and Alzheimer’s… the list goes on and on. And that list includes Patricia Arquette’s speech about women’s rights and equal pay.

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“We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” Arquette said. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

If we could capture the energy from a cheering crowd, we could have powered an entire city for a week with the excitement from that speech. So why did the entire Internet turn sour on Patricia Arquette shortly thereafter? Well, she made a follow-up remark backstage that didn’t seem to resonate quite as well with people — an off-the-cuff statement that ended with, “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve fought for to fight for us now.”

Hold on, Patricia Arquette. Are you insinuating that people of the LGBT community have won their battle? That the civil rights issue is in the past? That people of differing sexual orientation and color, including women, need to stop everything and focus on women’s rights?

No. She wasn’t insinuating that at all. And yet, many feminists attacked the actress for her comments, dismissing her as just another white, privileged woman. Never mind the fact that this follow up was a spur-of-the-moment thing, because, you know, no one has a problem with spontaneous articulation.

You know what bothers me the most about the fact that people are attacking her for her words? That in focusing on her poor phrasing, they are pushing the heart of her message away from the forefront. Instead of embracing a woman who is fighting for equality, people are scoffing, and dismissing her. Which — correct me if I’m wrong — is the very kind of thing that discourages equality.

There are so many women who are afraid to voice their opinions because they’re afraid that their thoughts are not well-prepared, that they’ll look stupid. After centuries of standing by while men speak for them, many women still have that hesitation ingrained in them, one that says, “Will the words I say just be held up as an example of why women are treated inequally in the first place?”

Now, I’m not saying that we should just nod our heads and smile when someone slips up and says something disrespectful or unintentionally hurtful… I’m just saying we don’t need to attack them. Perhaps instead we could sit them down and explain why we think they should reevaluate their words. Those who are so violently opposed to the idea of feminism most likely take that stance because the only type of resistance they’ve received is hateful, militant resistance. And this doesn’t just relate to feminism, but for pretty much any issue… when a person’s words conjure up such hostility, the natural instinct is to roll their eyes and label the attacker as temperamental and oversensitive and, therefore, not worth listening to. Not exactly the best ground to lay for healthy conversation.

Since this incident is in light of the Oscars, I found a soothing parallel of truth in the words of director Alejando Iñarritu as he and his fellow filmmakers accepted the award for Best Picture. “Ego loves competition,” he said. “For someone to win, someone has to lose. But the paradox is that true art, true expression… can’t be compared, can’t be labelled, can’t be defeated, because they exist.” This statement, though a bit truncated for the sake of my argument, already captures something beautiful… but replace the words “true art” with “people”, and you have a statement to live by.

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Quick note: I’m gonna be on TV!

Local TV, that is. And probably before you’re even awake. But it’s still pretty exciting to me, anyway. And nerve-wracking.

Stuart Landon and I will be representing the Midtown Cinema on ABC 27 for an Oscar talk on Friday, Feb. 20th. We’ll be discussing who the winners will be for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. There’ll be a 5am and 6am slot… so if you happen to be watching, try to guess how much caffeine I’ve ingested in preparation!

Fear, Wigs, and Vulnerability

I’m going to let you in on a secret: if you have never put on a wig, dressed yourself up, and spoken in a poorly articulated Southern accent, you’ve never really lived life.

I thoroughly enjoy pretending to be someone else, immersing myself in another persona for a short period of time. That sounds escapist, but it’s actually the opposite: when I put myself in another character’s shoes, it is not a rejection of who I am, but rather a learning experience — a chance to self-analyze as I look through another perspective. That’s part of why I love improv so much — it provides so many opportunities for this.

I played Connika Gothica, eccentric author, for the Murder Mystery party. I’m kind of proud of my costume.

But there’s always the question of where, exactly, performance and vulnerability meet. Last night, my friends hosted a Murder Mystery dinner party, and I got to play. Each person was given a character, and we had a blast, interrogating each other and arguing in order to work out who the murderer was in the staged scenario given to us. Then, after we solved our mystery, a few of us stuck around just to talk, and enjoy each other’s company. And the conversation turned to the subject of vulnerability.

One friend explained that she loved to tell stories from her life, but she always worried about how much information she should disclose — will they see me in a different way? Should I just tell another story that doesn’t put as much at stake? Externally, I found that my experience with vulnerability was the complete opposite — I tend to babble and freely tell people what’s going on in my head, and only after do I worry that perhaps I divulged a little too much. But internally, it is the same: we all have a fear of being vulnerable, whether it is a worry that our public image will shift, or that we’re burdening people with things that they didn’t care about in the first place (this is something that I am guilty of). Sometimes we even a fear what we may discover about ourselves in the process.

I’ve been trying to incorporate this doubt into the book I’ve been writing. My main protagonist constantly struggles with the isolating uncertainty of whether or not she is accepted within the community that she lives. At some point, it becomes unimportant whether this feeling is based on reality or not — the isolation occurs because her doubt affects her interactions.

I experience this doubt nearly every time I have a conversation. Just the other day, I told a friend that he could truly know if I felt comfortable around him if I were to hum or sing in his presence. Later, I realized how awkward this disclosure must have been —  I thought I had just been letting him in on a part of my personality, but in the process I was also reminding him that, oh hey, I’ve never hummed or sung in front of you before.

I know self-conscious moments like this are not at all rare, but it’s crazy to think how much these little neuroses control us. Why do we worry so much about how others perceive us? Why is vulnerability such a scary word?

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Mi hermana (Becky) and me

On Tuesday, my sister leaves the country for an indefinite amount of time. We haven’t lived in the same area for at least four years, and yet I’m still terrified of the fact that she’s moving away — it will be that much harder to connect with her. She is one of the few people that I don’t have this doubt with — I can talk to her about basically anything, or text her randomly and not fear that I’m being a burden. I know that she will tell me if I’m being annoying, or if she doesn’t actually care about what I’m telling her — not that this will stop me from continuing the conversation. “You don’t care about the particular subject that I’m talking about?”” I say. “Well, that’s too bad, I’m going to tell you anyway. And it will not be the demise of our friendship, because we both know that I’m being me, and you’re being you, and we still love each other.”

That’s the closeness that I will miss when she moves; and that is the closeness that I hope to have with others. It’s just people being people, and fitting into each other’s lives… and we only reach that point through vulnerability.

Let’s Get Out of Here!

Guess what? I’m antsy. And I blame it all on a film.

Every month I get to watch a film that won’t actually be at the Midtown Cinema for another month: an early screener for the review I write for TheBurg. This month it was TIMBUKTU, a West African film centering around the Jihadist control of a community in Mali (calm down, kiddos, you’ll get to see the review in the March edition).

The fact that the screener I watched this month was an Oscar nomination for the foreign language category was not lost on me. In fact, I will shamelessly say that it was intentional. I really wanted to see this particular film before the Academy Awards — it’s really hard to get a hold of the foreign language films that don’t have particularly wide releases, so yes. I was a bit biased in my choice.

But regardless of bias, this film is awesome. And, as a fun little bonus, it kept prodding my brain to reminisce about the four months I spent in Uganda back in college. Okay, yes — Uganda, Mali, different places, I know… but the culture and the attitudes of the people were very similar, with some slight Mali-influenced nuances. At any rate, it made me wish I could go back to Uganda and soak in that culture again. Or any culture, for that matter… it doesn’t take much to trigger the wanderlust.

It’s so easy to see why I’m so enamored with storytelling: it gives you a glimpse into someone else’s world. TIMBUKTU is not the first film to have made me antsy. I mean, think about it: watching a movie or reading a book is a really cheap way to transport yourself into another culture or mindset, and meet interesting new people. And writing is the same idea — with The Fields, I literally got to create a culture (or, probably more accurately, mix a few cultures together). It was challenging, and so much fun. But it’s not nearly the same as seeing it in real life.

A pretty succinct image of my time in Uganda: my host sister, Resty, doing laundry next to the family’s fancy-schmancy water tower, with dinner cooking in the background.

If it were at all possible, I would be halfway across the world right now. Not that I despise the place I live in — on the contrary, as I stated in my last post, I love Harrisburg. But… don’t you ever get the urge to peek around the corner and see your neighbors? Or even better, take a day trip and see what life is like in another state or two? Or even better, hop a flight to another country and see how people live their life there? I love people watching, and I love taking note of different people and their customs: what makes them tick, what fuels their decisions, what keeps them going after they have a crappy day, etc. That is what I find my pleasure in — that’s what causes me to get antsy every few months or so. Curiosity. I want to discover how the popular vernacular came to be; I want to eat a whole bunch of food I’ve never tried before. I want to break out of my comfort zone.

About two years ago, I decided to put aside as much of each leftover paycheck as I can muster towards saving towards travel, to try to go to at least one new place every year. Last year, I had finally saved up enough to go to the UK for three weeks. It was a whirlwind — three weeks is not enough time to fully experience a culture, no matter how much you believe it will be, but what  I did get to experience was amazing. It started off rocky, as I was traveling solo for the first time. Traveling alone is something you have to adjust to… it can be a lot of fun, but the first few days are going to be tough. For some, it’s initially scary; for me, it wasn’t that… it was just incredibly lonely. It didn’t help that the trip started off in London, which can be a pretty intimidating place for someone who doesn’t have a friend to help them out. But once I’d gotten comfortable with the idea that I was going to have to either get used to being by myself or put myself out there more, things took a turn for the better. I meandered my way over to Cardiff, then up through Liverpool, and then finished my trip in glorious Scotland, where part of my heritage lies. By the time I had finished my trip, I was elated. I had met so many cool and interesting people, tried as much British cuisine as I could afford, and seen some pretty fantastic sights.

Feeling proud of myself for finding the Boyne Castle ruins (Scotland).

One of the many reasons I chose the UK as my first solo traveling trip was that the culture wasn’t the complete opposite of my own. I could still speak the language, so if I got lost, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world… and it wouldn’t be so much of a culture shock that I would do something incredibly stupid upon arrival. But now I’m ready for another adventure, and I’m actually quite eager to try something completely different. I want to be stretched — hell, I’d even be okay with doing something incredibly stupid, as long as I’m able to laugh about it later.

I’m already saving up for a trip to Romania — my sister, Becky, is moving there next week to work for Wycliffe, and I want to visit her — but there are so many other places that I’d love to go. I’d love to go to Southeast Asia, and hop from place to place. I’d love to go back to Uganda and visit my host family, or go to Brazil, or Russia, or Ethiopia, or Iceland, or — okay, who am I fooling? I’d like to see every country before I die. That’s a lot of like to, but hey, everyone’s gotta have dreams, right?

I’ve wondered if my need to get up and move around the world every so often is just a sign of restless behavior, and a stubborn refusal to lay down roots. But every time that conversation comes up, I always decide that there’s got to be more to it than that. What I think it truly boils down to is that I am not willing to accept that the world is a narrow place. I know there’s more out there that I haven’t seen, and don’t understand, and I won’t rest until I’ve at least tried to see and understand it.

I probably sound an awful lot like a cheesy commercial for a travel agency, so I’ll wrap this post up. But, for those of you who have yet to travel past the border of your own country, here’s one last note: you’re still breathing, right? You’ve still got time. Start saving whatever you can to get out of here and go visit your neighbors.

A Quick Realization

Harrisburg is a wonderful place.

In the three wonderful years that I’ve lived here, I’ve found it to be satisfying on so many levels. First, it’s a city with a small-town feel… some may debate that as a con, but I very much see it as a pro. Second, though Harrisburg has been struggling with bankruptcy — as an acquaintance of mine so fittingly described it, it’s a city that’s “peeling at the edges” — there’s still this huge desire to piece things back together, to cultivate the budding art scene and to speak out for diversity and civil rights and basically all that is good.

There are so many examples of that goodness that have sprung to my attention recently that I don’t even know where to start. There’s the ignition of the Harrisburg chapter of This Stops Today, the so-called “Civil Rights Movement 2.0” — a group dedicated to improving the relationship between the community and its police force, especially when dealing with issues of racial bias. There’s also some pretty exciting stuff happening with Bike The Burg, as the city gears up to promote a safer biking environment. Politics, the community — check, check. Next stop: improv comedy. The Harrisburg Improv Theatre (lovingly referred to as the HIT) has really come to life this past year, presenting improv left and right for young and old alike… It’s awesome. I know, because I’m a tiny, tiny part of it.

All right, I’ll stop sounding like a pathetic bulletin board… after just one more announcement. Harrisburg even has a slice of Internet fame at the moment. Have any of you ever heard of Liz Laribee? If you live in this city, of course you have… but if you haven’t, let me give you the low-down: Liz Laribee is an artist who has played a huge part in the organization of many community projects — projects such as the Sycamore House, the Makespace, Sprocket Mural Works, Lawyers for the Arts… basically, she’s an all-around starter of good things. Recently, she made another good thing: Saved by the Bell Hooks, a comedic yet thought-provoking feminist Tumblr blog which has gone viral.

There is something truly refreshing about seeing so many grassroots events springing up in this general vicinity, especially when it’s someone you know who started the trend. Each of the various groups and people I’ve mentioned so far have started because people I know had a passion or an idea, and wanted to spread it around. There is nothing more powerful than realizing that the change in the air has been stirred up in your own neighborhood. Makes me feel a bit like I’ve been wasting away my own existence.

Which brings me to my current life update: today, I wrote a review for the Oscar-nominated Shorts that are playing at the Cinema.

Doesn’t quite measure up as “significant”, does it? Not when there are other movements going on, and people working to better other people, to improve the conditions of the place they live. Maybe I need to work on giving my writing a purpose… not just critiquing other people’s work, like in my reviews, or fleshing out characters like I do in my stories. What good is any of that if I can’t encourage people to be more forward-thinking, or give them what’s what on important life issues?

This is something I have to remind myself of again and again: a story isn’t anything spectacular unless it gives its audience a fresh perspective. So, that’s what I’ll working on this week. Let it be my month-late New Year’s Resolution: to make work that matters. And for those of you who also felt tiny in the midst of my above examples, join me in my quest to conquer self-disparagement. We can collectively come up with a way to make our lives significant.

 

(PS. Solo Sleepover has its next show coming up — we’ll be sharing the stage with OK Jones this Saturday at 8:00pm! Come check us out!)