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From Sarah With Love – Or From Love?

September 26, 2013

This is not a post about Sarah Connor’s schmaltzy and terrible “From Sarah With Love.” It is, however, a post about – or perhaps originating from – a Sarah.

Last weekend, a friend and I went to see Sarah Slean perform at QBUs in Leiden. Sarah Slean, for those of you who do not have a Canadian friend who tells you how much he loves Sarah Slean at least every other month, is a Canadian singer-songwriter who released her first EP in 1997 and has regularly been performing and releasing new albums ever since. My Canadian friend once recommended her to me when I was looking to expand my lady singer horizons after falling in love with Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan (another Canadian Sarah!) back in the ’90s, but I had never seen her live. Until Sunday, that is.

It was a great show. I won’t bore you with set lists and detailed discussions of all the vocal acrobatics that happened (though “Blue Parade,” very similar to this one in Paris, was a stellar encore which prompted me to turn to my friend and comment that “this is what Florence Welch wishes she sounds like.” And I like Florence + the Machine!), because while I was enjoying the evening, I couldn’t help noticing how much Ms Slean was loving* being there, on stage, in Leiden, in front of what can only be called an intimate crowd. The show was, as she herself described it, a bit of an impromptu variety show, with a local amateur strings sextet (BplusC) accompanying her for three songs, a Twitter follower from Utrecht accompanying her on the ukelele for one song and performing her own, original song – with Ms Slean doing backing vocals – and then her supporting act – the wonderful and fabulously bearded Ian Kelly – coming back on stage for a few collaborations. This all happened between her solo performance of a variety of songs, of course. And it struck me that there is no possible way for an artist to do all that – perform with all these people she never met until the day of the performance, share her spotlight, laugh at herself when she messed up her backing vocals – unless they absolutely, positively love doing it. Love not just showing and performing, but sharing their art with those who are open, willing, and brave enough to give it a try.

Though her vocals and performance were great, this is what I remember best about last Sunday night: just how wonderful it is to watch someone do something they love. Wonderful and memorable and inspiring. That’s the thought I was stuck on all day Monday and Tuesday and the thought I believed this post would center on. But then I realized that there are a great many people who love to do certain things and who have no problem exhibiting that love – and yet I want to punch them in the face. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I’m a very violence-averse person. As I started thinking about all these people – certain politicians, talking heads, celebrities, and perhaps a couple of folks I know personally – I realized that just doing something you love and sharing that love and enthusiasm with others is not that perfect storm, that magical moment, that I noticed on Sunday. It’s not just about doing something with love; it’s about doing something from love.

Think back on some inspiring people you have met, and you will probably realize (if you never did so before) that part of the reason they touched you was the passion they had for whatever they did or discussed or showed or performed or [insert other verbs here]. That’s doing something with love. Then think back on the most inspiring people, the most special people, who create the most special moment.  They make an active effort to share their love with you, to give you a little part of it, to stretch their love far enough that it can cover a whole community – and not just an individual. That is doing something from love. It is what I can see when I remember my favorite college professors and high school teachers. They obviously loved what they did, but they went beyond that: their teaching practice was brimming with … the possibility that one day my classmates and I, too, might feel such love for something one day. That we, too, would find our niche, and be comfortable in it. That is, in the end, what inspiration is: the belief that one day, you can do or be something that fits perfectly with who you are.

In order to be able to inspire people, one has to (I believe) possess a significant level of self-esteem, self-possession, and comfort with one’s one person and one’s own passion. Without these things, it seems (again, to me) impossible to spark those moments which make others go “Yes, this is wonderful! You are wonderful! I am wonderful! The world is, indeed, full of wonder! Onwards and upwards, my lovelies!” And that is the feeling I had when I traveled home after the concert Sunday night.

So well done, Ms Slean. I saw your love and because you shared it, I got to take a little bit home with me. Maybe, in turn, I’ll get to spread it even further; maybe with this blog post, or perhaps when I’m teaching. Either way, I’ll try to remember to come at things from love, and not just with it. It just seems a whole lot more valuable and rewarding.

*sorry, students! I know I told you one shouldn’t use stative verbs in the progressive form! Please do as I say and not as I do. Thank you.


On the passage of time, little girls, and my sister

September 20, 2013

Baby girls are born every day and grow up to be and do all manner of things.

Sometimes, they are born with a stomach that has a tendency to malfunction in the middle of the night, resulting in screaming and crying and keeping their big sisters up.

And they are perfectly okay being held and patted on their bum until they calm down and fall asleep.

They can develop the world’s most annoying game – throw two dozen marbles onto a serving tray and watch, mesmerized, how they roll from one side to the other as they tilt the tray – and be entertained by it for literally hours, without even noticing the noise that drives all others to distraction.

If they’re truly special, they might develop such a specific, personal language that linguists want to study it. And in that language, it makes perfect sense to call a frog an ah-eeya, a cucumber an ahmeea, and a spoon an eeeeeppphhh. Even after that language has come and gone, Pinocchio will still – always and forever – be Piocchino.

When their mother has the hairdresser chop all their hair off into a bob cut for their (6th?) birthday, they can refuse to celebrate with their family until they’re bought a cool baseball cap with a bulldog on it to hide their near-baldness.

They can be the perfect size to slide under one’s big sister’s bed so that big sister and her boyfriend can be spied on. They can also be so boisterous that this plan ends up not working out. At all.

They can be a tomboy one day and a princess in pink the other. But they have no problem taking the best of both worlds and combining them. Why be one thing when you can kick ass, stomp around in boots, and also have the pinkest room known to man?

On holidays, they can demand to have their constant companions – a stuffed animal cat called Poes and a lion called Leeuwtje (after several trips of also bringing life-size lioness Leeuw, their mother might start questioning her own sanity) – by their side.

But pets can’t come along on holidays, so when such a tough-yet-girly girl holds the frozen carcass of her guinea pig Bir (frozen with ALL the best intentions AFTER DEATH by a big sister who shall remain anonymous) in her hands upon her return, she might burst into tears, even if “she didn’t care that much for him anymore anyway.”

And then when puberty rolls along, their pigheadedness and refusal to listen to any form of reason might lead to all sorts of stress and strain. But puberty fades, and love – especially after it’s tested – remains.

These girls can impersonate Gollum better than the actor who played the part, can recite all of Aragorn’s titles even in the middle of the night, after some heavy drinking. They can decide to move to the other side of the country and study psychology. They can work hard at statistics and harder at their ability to win (beer-based) boat races and be perfectly content with passing grades. And then they can suddenly take a turn for the serious and fall headfirst into their forensic psychology graduate program. And before you know it, they’re a Master of Science.

If there is any little girl about whom all of the above is true, it’s my little sister. My baby sister. No longer a little girl. She graduates today. Master of Science, forensic psychology. I remember when she was born. I remember going to the hospital in my Musketeer carnival costume. I remember the sleepless nights. I remember the diapers and the burping. I remember the frustration only older sisters know. I remember the anger. I remember pushing her and breaking her flipflop and bribing her with a Snickers bar (“No, TWO”) so she wouldn’t tell mom it was my fault. I remember the cuddles. I remember holding her hand every time we crossed a street. I remember when it was no longer necessary to do so, but I still wanted to. I don’t know where all of that time went, if it ever went anywhere. But I know it’s in my head.

I guess a Master of forensic psychology doesn’t need her hand held anymore – at least not when she crosses the street. But being a big sister, I’ll always make sure it hovers near hers anyway, just in case.

Jetje, gefeliciteerd!

Vivian Versus the Apocalypse (Vivian Apple at the End of the World): Book Review

September 18, 2013
Katie, your book looks fabulous on my nightstand, next to Harry Potter.

What’s the highest praise you can bestow upon a book?

Until recently, my answer might have been “I often think about it when times are rough” or “it made me cry, but in the best possible way.” Of course that was before I read Katie Coyle’s Vivian Versus the Apocalypse. That’s when the highest praise became “this book was so well-written, the story so absorbing, that I forgot it was written by someone I know.”

Now, I don’t know-know Katie in the olden meaning of the word (nor in the Biblical sense, obviously); I know her through the power of the Internet. We “met” on a certain lady-slanted website back in 2007 or 2008 and migrated to another place at around the same time. For those of you who speak Internet and know how quickly time passes in that strange place – with memes rising and falling within days, sometimes hours – it should be clear that I’ve “known” Katie for a lifetime in Internet years. So of course I was beyond excited when she announced she was participating in the Hot Key Books 2012 Young Writers Prize, and I was ecstatic when she was announced the winner in her book’s age category.

I read it the day after it became available on Amazon: one half on Friday, one half on Saturday. I could have read this book – and finished it – well into the night, and I was sorely tempted, but in the end I chose to savor the experience.

The book opens on a party scene, the night before the Rapture (which was foretold by Pastor Frick of the powerful Church of America). Vivian is at a Rapture’s Eve party hosted by her best friend, Harp (Harpreet Janda). As the girls banter, flapper-style, it quickly becomes clear that Harp is the boisterous, outgoing friend (every friendship has one, in varying degrees), while Vivian has so far been okay with a quiet, make-no-waves kind of life. The threat of the Rapture, even though she doesn’t believe in it, however, has her left wanting… more. After a distinctly failuresque encounter with a boy with the bluest eyes, non-religious Vivian prays “Dear Universe, […] Make me less meek, make me less afraid. Dear Universe, make me the hero of my own story.”

And though gods may not be real, the universe certain is, because Vivian’s prayer is answered in every possible way. After going home the morning after the party and discovering two holes in the ceiling over her parents bed, she is swept up in a storm of post-Rapture chaos. What follows is, in many ways, a classic coming of age story. Under the threat of end to life and/or personhood, Vivian embarks on a literal journey of self-discovery, traversing the United States in search of an explanation of her parents’ fate (and that of thousands of others).

Luckily, Vivian does not have to negotiate the dangerous, pre-apocalyptic world of Left Behinds (those not raptured) and New Orphans (the children of the raptured), together with the new believers, alone; she is accompanied by Harp – due to circumstances no longer as innocently boisterous – and Peter – mysterious, but not painfully YA-cliche broody. Together, they deal with the alluring siren call of faux-comfort, the painful reality of hate crime, the agony of abandonment, and – crucially – the evil of drum circles.

When did my reading transition from “OMG KATIE WROTE THIS” to “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE KATIE WROTE THIS” to “OMG THIS STORY”? I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but it was around the time when we first start seeing the corporate face of the Church of America.

The food is all Church of America brand; in addition to the founding of the Church itself, Frick was the CEO of its accompanying multi-million dollar corporation. They publish the magazines and run the Church television networks, and they produce end-of-the-world provisions like these–bottles of Holy Spring Water, bland Spaghetti-Os knock-offs called Christ Loops. (23)

Vivian’s America, despite its fictional nature, started ringing frightfully true (in a dystopian Margaret Atwood-esque way*). Of course a powerful American church would be corporate-minded. Of course nothing good could ever come from dealing with such an organization. Yet, in a way, it does. The Church of America’s actions catalyze the universe answering Vivian’s prayer: she becomes, while tripping over her metaphorical feet and falling on her figurative face more than once, not the heroine (ugh) but the hero of her own story. And she discovers, in the process, that both becoming and being a hero are painful, sometimes excruciating, often awkward, yet ultimately fulfilling states.

So do yourself a favor and run on over to your local Amazon to get your very own copy now. Or order through Hot Key Books!

*I’m not the first one to draw Margaret Atwood parallels. For more detail, go here.

Autumn prep: a hint of nostalgia, courtesy of Dar Williams

August 29, 2013

Spotify recently updated its home screen to feature a strange hodgepodge of recommendations tailored to the account holder. As someone traumatized by Pandora when she still had access to that marvel of music sites a few years back (No, my love for Dixie Chicks does NOT mean I want to listen to Carrie Underwood, thanks), I am (perhaps) more reluctant than most to take them seriously. And, indeed, many of the connections Spotify makes are undeniably strange. “You have listened to Judy Garland. Now try Harry Belafonte!” “If you like Bette Midler, you will love John Denver! And, a favorite: “It’s been a while since you last listened to ‘Fuck You’ by Lily Allen. Play now?” Not that I have anything against Harry Belafonte, far from it, but they’re not exactly the same style. So I don’t have a lot of faith in these things.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I decided to click one of these suggestions (“Love Indigo Girls and Girlyman? Try Dar Williams”) anyway. Perhaps because I didn’t know her name and felt like I should, perhaps because yes, I do love Indigo Girls and Girlyman, thank you, Spotify. The reason doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I started listening to her albums and immediately fell in love.

My musical preference is already lightly skewed towards lady singers, so my love-at-first-sight might – at least initially – be explained by that predilection, but in reality it’s her lyrics. They push all my interests-in-art buttons: kindness, connection, nostalgia. These are themes I love the most in the books and media I choose to surround myself with and were also important themes in my MA thesis, in which I took a look at the desire for a reconnection with these themes in books in post-9/11 America. In the end, in my heart, I guess, I believe that when given the opportunity, people will naturally want to do good, connect with their communities and the world around them, and treat each other kindly. Of course such a world view seems to fly directly in the face of our daily news cycle, with its reports of chemical warfare in Syria, people molested and abused the world over, children of color being killed in American streets because the color of their skin, austerity measures, and so on, and so forth. But world views, in my opinion, should always hang in a precarious balance lest they ossify and remain stagnant and reactionary, so I’ll continue facing the world as a contradiction in terms.

But back to Dar Williams and her lyrics. One of the first songs that grabbed me was “February.” (If you don’t like lengthy song analyses and personal thoughts about lyrics, please just listen to the songs and fall in love along  with me while skipping over the rest?)

(I’m including YouTube so folks without Spotify can listen along if they’re so inclined. All her albums are on Spotify, though, for those of you who have accounts.) Now please note that all the following analyses and interpretations are (naturally) my own, and you mileage may vary, but this song caught my attention because to me, it speaks to that unspeakable, impossible-seeming moment when you suddenly, without noticing, forget why you loved someone (or something, for that matter) and, as a result, stop loving them. The song opens with “I threw your keys in the water / I looked back and they’d frozen halfway down in the ice” and has a wonderful circularity, ending with “The leaves were turning as we drove to the hardware store / my new lover made me keys to the house.” In between the two keys, however, we find a reminiscence (the “looking back”) of how it all went wrong. But of course there’s never a clear image of where, when and why exactly you forgot to love this person or thing; it sneaks and it happens and it doesn’t make sense. So “first we forgot where we planted those bulbs last year / And then we forgot that we planted at all / Then we forgot was plants are altogether / and I blamed you for my freezing and forgetting.” Later in the song, as February (which “has lasted into March”) finally seems to lose its grip, “you stopped and pointed and you said, that’s a crocus / and I said, what’s a crocus / and you said, it’s a flower / I tried to remember but I said, what’s a flower / and you said, I still love you. ” The damage has been done, inexplicably yet undeniably so, and the new lover is next. But the song is not about that. The new lover doesn’t really matter – except perhaps as a potential simulacrum, with a similar potential fate, of the old one. The key here is the wistful glance at a past which undeniably took a turn you might wish it hadn’t taken. But that’s life, and that’s February. It’s a godawful month.

Then there’s “The Babysitter’s Here.”

This ode to her babysitter in the 70’s (“peace, man, cool, yeah”) has a such a beautiful narrative progression that I really don’t want to quote too much; it feels like spoilers. Ridiculous, I know, but I never said my song feelings made sense. (So why are you reading this, you might ask yourself? Look, I don’t know either. You felt like it, I guess.) If you listen to it, however, you are immediately permeated by the feeling of this little girl absolutely hero-worshiping the cool teenager who takes care of her: the babysitter has long hair, watches strange movies, is a dancer, and has a beautiful boyfriend. Obviously everything she is must be everything a little girl wants to be. But from early on in the song, the adults among us understand that all might not be perfect as our little speaker wonders about Tom (the boyfriend) and the babysitter, “will they get married with kids of their own / he says, not if she’s going to college we won’t.” At the end of the song, the babysitter is crying and says “do me a favor, don’t go with a guy who would make you choose / and I don’t understand and she tries to explain / and all that mascara runs down in her pain cause she’s leaving me, oh.” To this little girl, who loves and is loved, the only understandable pain in this situation is the pain of separation. But of course we know that the babysitter’s decision to go to college must mean Tom ditched her (and good riddance to him, I say!). As a result, we end with a bittersweet scenario of a little girl taking caring for her babysitter (“And I’ll make you a picture for college next year / So hush now, peace man /”) and that awkward knowledge that may have come to us as adults, that childhood, even for all it’s love, lightness and glitter, was so much heavier than we perceive it to be now (especially looking at those who are currently children).

Finally (because I cannot keep going on about these songs, no matter how much I want to), there’s “Teenagers, Kick Our Butts,” which sadly is not on YouTube but which is my anthem for this academic year. Teenagers are, as we all know, much maligned. They’re disaffected, rude, unambitious, have no attention span, don’t know how to communicate, and so on, and so forth. In this song, Dar Williams says that maybe it’s us, not them, that’s the problem. There are many parts of this song which resonate with me. As a now 30-something, “we drink and smoke to numb our pain / we read junk novels on the plane / we use authority for show so we can be a little smarter” is an obvious winner, but so is “we still can grow, and many do / it’s when we stop we can’t reach you / we feel the loss, you feel the blame / we’re scared to lose, don’t be the same.” This song, in its entirety, speaks to the ridiculousness of dismissing teenagers out of hand, just because they’re teenagers. Because, when it comes down to it, what’s the alternative? We all hoard our knowledge and our wealth (haha, fellow Millennials! Haha, wealth) and our influence and keep kicking younger generations down, Boomer-style? That’s no way to live, nor is it a way to make the world better. Might as well have teenagers kick our butts, because it’s not like we’re doing such an awesome job at running the world anyway. Besides, as Williams sings to the teenagers “I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn / but that’s not your fault, it’s just your turn,” so “find the future that redeems / give us hell, give us dreams / and grow and grow and grow.”

Hopefully my students will heed this call as well.

I am aware I went on about this singer-songwriter for an awfully long time, but believe me, it could have been much worse. If my verbosity hasn’t soured any interest you might have had in Dar Williams as you started reading, look up some of my other favorites: “What Do You Hear In These Sounds,” “The End of Summer,” “My Friends,” “Christians and Pagans,” “Iowa,” “When I Was A Boy,” “Are You Out There” and the intro to “Yoko Ono” on the “Out There Live” album. In fact, just listen to that entire album. Do it. For love, joy, and music that’s perfect for September.

The reason I teach is you

June 24, 2013

This post has been percolating for a good long while. I’ve gone back and forth on posting it for several weeks. Isn’t it too mushy? Too personal? Too much? Is it silly? Ridiculous even? I still don’t know the answer, but I know I want to post it, so here it goes: this is basically a love letter to my students.

We’re currently finishing up the school year and though I’ll be returning to my academy next year, it won’t be the same, for a variety of reasons. In many ways, these weeks feel like one long goodbye. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this past year, because it was an assignment for my teacher training course, but also because, y’all? It’s been a year. I missed the first day of class in September, because that day my mother called me to say that my Oma had been hospitalized unexpectedly, things were serious, and the doctors had told the family to come say goodbye. She died a couple of days later. Then November began a series of professional kicks in the teeth that left me reeling on several occasions during the rest of the school year – until as recently as today, in fact. But there was one thing that kept pulling me through, that had me coming back to work every single day, and that made me feel good about how I spent my days. That reason, dear reader, was you.

Yes, you. No need to awkwardly look over your shoulder for someone else I might be addressing. If you are a student, or if you ever were a student – and I’m pretty sure we all were once – I mean you. What follows is how I feel, but I’m certain many – probably most – teachers feel the same way, at least to some degree. If you were or are a student, but were never a teacher, it may be hard to believe, but trust me on this.

Why do I mean you? And why did you keep me going? Because you make me wonder and marvel, you make me hope and despair, you inspire and infuriate me, you delight and terrify me, you make me laugh and make me sigh, you make me root for you, you make me feel for you, and you make me want to be better. As a class of individuals, you are so exceptionally diverse, so magnificently unpredictable. How could I not adore you for that? From the minute you first walk into my classroom, you start burrowing under my skin. You worm your way into my heart, and there you sit: mine. My student, and as you are my student, I will go to bat for you. You energize me, even – particularly – on bad days.

You might still think I don’t mean you. I promise you, I do. Even if you

  • failed my course. I trust you can pass, I trust your abilities, and I know you are working hard.
  • got angry with me in class because of something I said or did. We worked it out, and if we haven’t yet, we will.
  • challenged me on your grades or my evaluation of your performance. We have talked it over (and maybe you were right!) and if we haven’t yet, let’s. There’s no point in being given feedback if you don’t understand it or fundamentally disagree.
  • rolled your eyes in class because we were discussing something you already knew. I know how it feels to not feel challenged and even if I can’t change it, because you’re just slightly too advanced for my courses, I can empathize.
  • didn’t understand most of what went on in class, or what’s going on in this post. You, too, have the ability to succeed at English.
  • were given feedback that made you believe I’m upset with you as a person or that you thought was harsh. It might mean I know you are excellent, but you could be a bit more serious about your work.
  • were sent to the exam committee for irregularities in your work, for sharing your work with others, or for using others’ work as too-literal inspiration. College can be a steep learning curve.
  • think I’m full of shit. Hey, I didn’t think all my teachers and professors were completely amazing either. It’s okay. Sometimes people don’t mesh well.

Finally, I’d like to thank you. For a great many things, but especially for

  • lobbying for me. I don’t think you’ll ever know how much I appreciated that – and still do.
  • daring to speak up in class, whether it was in English or in Dutch.
  • challenging me every single day.
  • giving me feedback, even with your name attached, even before I’d graded your assignments – but also anonymously. It’s much appreciated and taken into serious consideration.
  • questioning me and what we discussed in class.
  • letting me know that you used things we discussed in class and how that worked out for you.
  • asking me for help.
  • daring to think boldly, bravely, internationally.
  • saying “hi” when we saw each other outside of school, even though I know seeing a teacher outside of school can feel like seeing an elephant dance in a pink tutu.
  • pointedly ignoring me when you spotted me on a date. Man, wasn’t that awkward!?
  • laughing at my geeky jokes, and even if you didn’t, appreciating (or at least not mocking) my attempts at humor anyway.
  • asking me to teach outside. It was sticky and kind of gross, but also a whole new take on teaching, and I’ll definitely repeat it when I can, in the future.
  • sharing personal things with me, things that may not have always been easy to share. I hope you never lose the ability to trust others with yourself.
  • jumping on the Silly Express to Ridiculousville with me and talking about your first date even if you hadn’t had one yet, the gnome who lives under your bed, and the color of your toenails.
  • writing excellent poetry about physics. Some of my favorites are tacked on my wall and they never fail to make me smile.
  • writing excellent poetry about physics, turning that poem into a song, and letting me know about it.
  • showing up for class at 8:45. That stuff’s easy for literally none of us.

I could keep going, but I’ve gone on for 1,000 words already, so I think this will have to do. Many thanks to all of you. Kick ass on your projects, slaughter your resits, and enjoy your summer.

Bomb Girls and My Mad Fat Diary: Two Shows You Should Be Watching.

March 11, 2013

Do you like good stories? Stories that ring true? Do you like stories that revolve around girls and women taking their lives in their own hands, despite their circumstances? Do you like stories that don’t take 22 episodes to come to a climax? Do you like good actors and production teams who take their jobs seriously? Then you should definitely be watching Bomb Girls (Canadian) and My Mad Fat Diary (English). Why? Well, read on (minor risk of spoilers, as one would expect when dealing with media reviews) to find out more!

“Come on, Bets! We’ve got a war to win.”


As Canada’s men left for Europe to fight Hitler and Mussolini, its women were left the job of keeping the ever-growing war machine running. Bomb Girls tells the story of a group of women who work the same shift for Victory Munitions, a bomb-making factory in a Toronto suburb . Though they are from different backgrounds – upper class, middle class, working class, married, single, widowed, straight, gay – and have greatly differing outlooks on life, their work and the hazards that come with it lay the foundation for a relationship based on mutual respect. But don’t worry, this show isn’t nearly as saccharine as that sounds. Because perhaps contrary to expectations, the writers of this show have created not the type of female friendshippy rah-rah-rah-don’t-we-just-love-being-girls characters, but actual women who make a metric ton of questionable, sometimes outright stupid choices. gladys 2As we watch the fallout of these choices occur, however, we cannot help but sympathize, because the reasons for making these choices – love, lust, insecurity, xenophobia, fear, desire for social advancement, hope, patriotism – may not always be right, but they always ring true.

The characters in this show are often assholes, jackasses, and jealous shits (you know, besides being fabulous, charming, wonderful people), but this only makes you love them more. I promise. I don’t want to spoil you to death here, but my case in point is Lorna, one of the best television characters (in my opinion) ever created. And of course the show passes the Bechdel Test (which means that there are at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man) in nearly every scene.

betty and kate

It tackles social issues like (sexual) abuse, abortion, sexual double standards, expectations of masculinity, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia without being heavy-handed – not tacked onto the stories as an afterthought (“oh wait, wasn’t sexism a thing in the 1940’s? Best get some harassment in there!”), but as an integral part of the stories (when first explaining how important workplace safety is – it being a bomb factory and all – we see a young new worker get so flustered by the sexual comments made in her direction that she drops a (thankfully mostly empty) canister of explosives).

There is flawless, shiny hair, fabulous lipsticks, and amazing vintage fashion – with the added bonus that the costume and continuity folks know their stuff and have many items of clothing (and even accessories like scarves) return in several episodes, just like the characters are actual people who wear outfits more than once.

These bomb-ass characters are lonely, loving, lovely, frustrating, fabulous, fantastic, vexing, vixenish, vexatious, hell-on-wheels, hopeful, and heavenly. They will rip your heart out, drop one of their bombs on it, spread the remains on their dance floor and lindy hop all over it. And the weird thing? You’ll thank them for it.

(There are currently 12 episodes of Bomb Girls. The first 6 – season 1 – are out of DVD and available on Amazon.)

“And if anyone ever finds this diary, and reads it, and concludes that I’m crazy? They’d be spot on.”

raeBased on the book “My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary” by Rae Earl, this E4 series features 16-year old Rae Earl, who lives in Lincolnshire in 1996, together with her mom, her mom’s Tunisian lover, and a storage cupboard with which Rae has a very strange relationship. In addition to struggling with all the normal teenage issues – peer pressure, wanting to fit in, dealing with unrequited love and crushes, working through the sting of friends growing apart, arguments with parents, and so on – Rae is also mentally ill. We meet Rae as she is leaving the mental institution where she spent four months “locked away. Four months convincing people my finger is no longer on the self-destruct button.”

Rae writes in her diary as a coping mechanism, she counts to 10 when she panics or is about to binge, takes scalding hot showers when she can’t deal with her feelings, has suicidal thoughts, goes to therapy, can’t look at herself in the mirror, and takes a variety of antidepressants.
rae 2

This show could easily have been a disaster. Instead, it’s a triumph. This, I think, is at least partially owing to the fact that the book on which it’s based is, in turn, based on a true story: a real person’s experiences growing up as a fat teenager with mental illness. As with the choices made by characters in Bomb Girls, Rae’s choices aren’t always logical or productive or healthy, but they ring true nevertheless. And because Rae is such a lovable character, even in all her bad (teenage) behavior (the viewer can’t help but cringe when Rae goes over the worst three things she’s ever said to her mom), it becomes very easy to understand where she is coming from and sympathize with her. It doesn’t take long for you to start rooting for her, and she makes us root hard. After the first episode, in which the reality of being out of the mental institution and back home has hit her hard and, on top of that, she’s had to stand in the street half naked, covering her bits with the blow-up crocodile (to name but one major event), it almost seems a miracle that Rae’s still standing. 

The hits don’t stop coming Rae’s way throughout the 6-episode season, but she mostly manages to power through them, with a lot of help and support from a variety of sources, including medication. There is no shame in Rae’s pill-popping. It’s just a little thing, integrated in her pre-bed rituals. Nor is there any shame in her need for help. When she is truly in crisis, she voluntarily goes over a mental list of people she can ask for help. In this way, My Mad Fat Diary tells a story of recovery which is true, real, and powerful. Things don’t come easy to Rae after her release, just like they don’t come easy in life. But Rae and her wicked sense of humor (the introduces one of her doctors as “Dr. Nick: Expert moistener of lady-gardens”) carry on.

backpack and beltMy Mad Fat Diary is a hilarious show, but it’s also, especially for us 30-somethings, a feast of recognition. From the tiny backpacks, crop tops, and flower-shaped belt buckles, to the AMAZING soundtrack, watching the show is like engaging in eerily real time-travel. If you add the way in which the female friendships are written (jealousy of the ‘pretty friend,’ feeling like your friend doesn’t truly understand you, undermining a friend even though you love her, and then giving up something you really wanted because you know she’s your absolute best friend and nothing could ever be more important), it can even, at times, be painfully recognizable. And even with Rae’s (very realistic, I might add) teenage hormone-induced man-loving ways, this show, too, passes the Bechdel Test on the regular.

Funny, recognizable, lovable, hopeful: those would be my key words for My Mad Fat Diary. For people in recovery of an eating disorder or self-harming behavior, like cutting, it might be too recognizable. That would be my one warning for this show. It doesn’t mince words and it shows, well, a lot. We see Rae’s scars, we see her binge, we see her burn herself with hot water. If these are things that could potentially trigger you, tread with care. But if you’re on the fence, do see if you can give it a go. I think one of the most valuable things about this show (you know, other than it being truly entertaining) is that witnessing a person (especially a young person if you yourself are a young person) going through recovery and actually getting better is an extremely powerful thing. And if you do not have any type of mental illness, the show provides a good window into what life with eating disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts can look like: not just the “illness” side of that life, but all the good, the amazing, the love and the strangeness of it as well.

(The first season of My Mad Fat Diary is out on DVD and available on Amazon. The series has been renewed, so there will be a second season at some point.)

Napoleon, a Victorian prostitute, and a flying piano walk into a theater, where they collide with The Beatles

January 26, 2013

That’s honestly the best description I can give of “Come Together,” a theater concert I saw in Amsterdam’s Carré Theater last night. I was given tickets to this show for my graduation and really did not know what to expect. Sure, I looked up clips on YouTube, but I still had no idea what I was getting myself into. Theater concerts have been pretty happening here over the past few years, but they’re always done by the original bands/singers in question and there are never elaborate costumes involved.

Not so with “Come Together,” which is made up of Beatles songs performed by an ensemble of excellent Danish performers, and had its first run in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. For a solid 90 minutes, they sweep you up in a drug-addled, uncomfortable, hilarious, alien, wonderful, gravity-defying smoke-filled haze of theatrics and newly-arranged, magnificently performed, musical classics. From the unsettling opening with “Yesterday,” which is sung out of its usual order, through the fantastically gothic incarnation of “Eleanor Rigby” and the contemporary rock-concert version of “All You Need Is Love,” to the intimate, tender rendition of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the audience is swept up in a wave of “I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but I am loving the shit out of it.” When the last song before intermission ended, I turned to my friend and asked “is this the Apocalypse?” To which she replied, “I think it might be.”

I hope that by now it’s become clear there is no way one can truly explain the nature of this theater concert. It is big and bold on some occasions, sparse and alien on others, yet can also be lovely, friendly, intimate. It does away with our ideas of what musical performance should look like, especially during numbers like “I Am The Walrus,” which is sung by Napoleon while he stands on a wall at a 90 degree angle to the rest of us and “Across the Universe” which is sung, bafflingly and fantastically, completely upside down by a performer floating through the darkness, suspended from his feet.

“Come Together” is a great many things (as evidenced by the fact that I’ve run out of adjectives to describe it), but it is most emphatically not a musical. There is no narrative structure. There is, most certainly, a structure to the complete performance, but is not something that can be retold. It’s a structure which builds, but which must be experienced. It is, then, perhaps most like a dream – or what I imagine a trip on certain hallucinatory drugs is like.

Here’s where I would usually link you to upcoming shows, but I’ve run into a slight snag, which is that I can’t find a performance schedule anywhere online. Their final performance in Amsterdam is tonight, so if you’re in the area I highly recommend that you contact Carré to inquire after tickets, but beyond that, I have no clue when (and if) this show will be performed again. So I’ll just send this blog post into the ether, hoping that it will one day reach someone who, like me, considers going to see this show, but has no clue what she (or he) is in for. To that person I say, go. It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand what you’re going to see. It doesn’t matter that after you’ve seen it, you still don’t truly know. But you’ll be happy you went. I promise.