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Review of CapStage’s Stupid F###king Bird
May 29th, 2017 by Dr Karma

CapStage is the home of intimate ground-breaking theatre. They make incredible use of their small space, creating immerse worlds that spill out into the audience.

Stupid Fucking Bird, by Aaron Posner, is playing there until June 4th.

Go see it.

I first encountered Posner’s work when I saw the recording of the Folger Theatre’s Macbeth–Posner directed it, together with Teller (of Penn and Teller). Together, they brought real magic to the stage–the witches disappear, daggers float, blood covers white hands.

Thus, I was excited to see Posner’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. One doesn’t need to know anything about Chekhov or The Seagull to enjoy this play, but you get the old nerd thrill of recognition at some moments if you do.

The play is brilliant, and it’s beautifully directed by Michael Stevenson, who expertly guides his cast in handling a tricky piece of metatheatre, complete with direct addresses and interactions with the audience. Don’t worry–it’s not uncomfortable–you won’t be asked to come on stage or to talk if you don’t want to, but avoid drinking too much on their lovely patio before the show–you don’t want to be the unlucky person who naps–you’re likely to get called out & you’re missing a great show!

This work is about what all of Chekhov’s works are about–relationships (why doesn’t this person love me? what if I’m a disappointment to myself, my lovers, my parents, my children? is it better to be content or to search for happiness? do I get to choose?), but it also asks what theatre’s relationship to these questions are (will audiences watch something new? can theatre truly provoke us to change?).

I fucking love this play.

 

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Now on Hulu!
Apr 26th, 2017 by Dr Karma

For much of my youth, I was put off by dystopic visions. I’m not sure if this was because I was so frightened of what my own future could become, if I was horrified by the dark glimpses into human nature that dystopias provide or because I’d been frightened by a childhood viewing of an HBO special on Nostradamus, featuring explorations of a coming apocalypse that were rather hysterical (in both senses of the word). I eschewed all of the texts that would later captivate me (like Bladerunner) and settled on comforting visions of the future (like the socialist near paradise that was Star Trek). Then, in high school, there was The Handmaid’s Tale. One relative, who had not read the book, but who had heard some rumors about it, tried to deny me access, even though it was required reading. Luckily, I prevailed. It entranced me, both with its ideas and its language—which could be poetic and tragic and comic all at the same time. When Aunt Lydia tells the girls that they are rare and valued, like pearls, our narrator contemplates the metaphor: “I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit” (145)—it was exactly the type of close reading that I was prone to do.

Perhaps the text drew me in because I identified with it. Atwood wrote parts of the novel in Alabama, very near where I was growing up (in “Florbama”—the part of Florida directly underneath Alabama). Her world seemed very real to me—I was deep in the Bible belt; our world history teacher was forbidden to acknowledge that there was any history before the ancient Egyptians, as that fact offended parents who believed the Earth was only 6000 years old; abstinence only education was standard; an abortion provider, David Gunn, was murdered in my town right around the time we encountered the handmaid’s repressive society.

I was electrified. Not all students responded the same way, of course. I remember one girl complaining that she didn’t like the book because it was disturbing. And I remember the teacher’s response: “Good. It’s supposed to disturb you.”

Those are the first three paragraphs of my introductory essay to Atwood’s Apocalypses.

I’m crazy excited about Hulu’s premiere today. It’s taking all my willpower to do work this morning instead of watching. Fingers crossed that this is better than the much maligned film (with a screenplay by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter)!

A review of the start will be coming soon.

In the meantime, are you excited about Atwood? Consider liking The Margaret Atwood Society on Facebook or following us on Twitter (@atwoodsociety)–we post lots of Atwood news there–for free!

Full membership is only $15.

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What “Alike” Gets Wrong About Education
Apr 4th, 2017 by Dr Karma

When we learned multiplication, one of my classmates discovered he could multiply the top by the bottom OR the bottom by the top and get the same answer.

The teacher made him do his worksheet over.

I watched–and learned–do it her way, or do extra work.

These are the moments that people probably think of when they watch the new Pixar film, Alike. The link I followed made this clear, arguing that the film was touching a cord as it skewers school for making us lose our creativity.

But that’s not what I thought about when I watched this film.

I thought about how I had teachers who fought to teach us science and history in a place (the south) where parents tried to get them fired for doing so.

I thought about my theory of knowledge class–where the very nature of truth and knowledge came under fire–where we were encouraged to debate and to test.

I thought about the encouragement I got from an orchestra teacher when he heard me trying to figure out Flight of the Bumblebee without any sheet music.

I thought about the teacher who circled my cover sheet statement that said 600 words. We had written short stories–the minimum was supposed to be 1000 words. My teacher crossed out her circle after reading the story and wrote “A+ — you couldn’t have added one more word without ruining it!”

I thought about the writing teacher in middle school whose comments were always longer than my papers.

I thought about the teacher who paid out of her own pocket for us all to have our own frog to dissect. Something was coming out of my frog’s abdomen already. I asked what it was and she said, “you’re the best one to figure that out.” (The frog had apparently died of an awful hernia, I discovered.)

I thought about my teachers telling me to learn the rules–before I could break them “prudently.”

I thought about the teachers who forgave me for my chronic lateness–they knew my mom wouldn’t get up to take me to school on time.

I thought about the teachers who listened to me and supported me and encouraged me and basically stood in for the support I didn’t always get at home.

I thought about the teachers who had to deal with us–heartbroken, always–and give advice without reminding us that young love is inherently stupid and dramatic.

I thought about the one teacher who knew I was pregnant the same day I knew (because I told her)–and how she made sure I was always “busy” when it was time to move a piano and who complimented me on the “creative costuming” that let my issue stay hidden until the beginning of the third trimester.

I thought about so many of my university teachers–who managed to open my mind even though I thought I knew how the world worked already.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to think.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to read.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to write.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to act.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to sing.

Can education, when done poorly, kill your creativity? Yeah.

But I became a teacher because my teachers opened my world. My teachers gave me a future. My teachers saved me.

Everyone who moves on in education can think of a few bad teachers. And a few amazing ones. And that has made all the difference.

And now I’ve become a teacher–because I want not just education that inspires, but a job that inspires me as well.

PS–why isn’t the current critique of this film about the awful work world too?

PPS–even though I think this kid’s artistic side should be nurtured, he does need to learn to write. (Says the writing teacher.)

PPPS–Yes, I’m also the viewer who thinks the English teacher in The Blind Side is not the bad guy!

 

 

 

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Sherlock and Spock: Cold Men, Warm Hearts?
Jan 18th, 2017 by Dr Karma

The Spock of my childhood embraced his human side in small ways over the course of many years. Some episodes would end with Dr. McCoy commenting on how Spock’s green blood might have a little red in it, only for Spock to raise an eyebrow, unconvinced–and insulted.

We were told, of course, that Vulcans had deep emotions in their past and that contemporary Vulcans learned to keep the vestiges in check (except when time traveling and when in heat, of course).

Our modern Spock in the movie reboots can certainly raise an eyebrow. And we’re told his emotions are buried deeply, but what we see is a Spock barely able to control his emotions, getting in fistfights the second someone mentions his mom or is mean to his friend. In fact, this Spock’s brand of emotional control seems only to apply to difficulties in communicating with this girlfriend (women are from Earth, men are from Vulcan).

These recent years have also given us a new Sherlock, one that contemporary understandings of science might allow us to see as not only “a high functioning sociopath” but a high functioning person on the autism spectrum.

I’ll be intentionally vague to avoid spoilers, but the last episode seemed to indicate that this diagnosis might be wrong or incomplete–that PTSD from childhood might have made Sherlock what he is.

In any case, he shares with our new Spock barely hidden emotional currents, including a deep and abiding bromance, especially since he too has violent emotional outbursts.

Spock and Sherlock (Khan) fighting

Even though I find these men often behaving out of character (in my childhood definitions of them), what interests me more now is why so many women–myself included–are interested in them (and in men like them–like our Doctor Whos).

So many geeky girls have wet Wonder Woman panties for guys who are largely incapable of human emotion.

I think our secret fantasy is that these men can only be un(sher)locked by us–that their deep passions could only be spurred by us–the passions both intellectual and romantic–we would be their John/Kirk and Irene/Uhura combined. They would find us “fascinating” and throw their powerful punches when we’re in danger.

That’s not usually how it works.

Many years ago, I was in a relationship with someone I loved very much–it was our third time trying to make it work. My hopes were bolstered one evening–we went to see Star Trek–the reboot. When Spock’s father tells Spock that he married for love, I felt my partner shift in his seat. And I knew that he would finally tell me–after a decade and a half being mostly off and occasionally on–that he loved me.

Later that night he did.

Spock’s dad had given him permission.

Not surprisingly, it was empathy, that thing Spock and Sherlock lack, that finally drove us apart.

He said he had too much–that it upset him for me to be upset. Thus, I was not allowed to be upset–not even about losing my job in the 2009 recession. I suggested that perhaps he should control his being upset rather than telling me I wasn’t allowed to be–but that was dismissed as illogical.

(Other men I’ve been with think it’s hilarious that this man thought I was overly emotional, especially the few on the far other end of the emotional spectrum who’ve found me cold.)

The irony is that what I needed most was empathy–the trait he believed so strongly he had.

I needed him to understand that my life had been very different from his–that there’s a reason I’m a worrier, for example–it’s a logical consequence of growing up with alcoholics–children who feel unsafe often try to control things–to organize, to worry, to plan for the worst.

One of our very worst moments came when he (a fiscal conservative) told me he didn’t understand how I hadn’t caught up with him financially, especially since I worked so hard. (This was 2010–four years out from my degree.)

He grew up in a stable upper middle class home. His parents put him through college, and his dad paid off his student loans for his Masters in business. He had never been married, never had children, and worked in the private sector. He’s healthy.

I grew up very differently, was a single mother starting at 17, and put myself all the way through a PhD, taking out student loans along the way. My stupid body had its first back surgery when I was 25; out of pocket co-pays and therapies were a third of the 18,000 I made that year–and I’ve been working hard to get ahead ever since. I have a job that I love, but it’s in academia, and because of my job title, I can’t even get the raises I deserve. I am proud to have pulled myself up from where I started. I am proud that I can pay my bills, but I’ll never be in the financial place where he is.

But I work really hard.

I agree with him on that, but I needed him to be able to understand, both in terms of economic realities and in terms of empathy, why I hadn’t “caught up.”

I’m probably just too emotional, too human.

And that’s why we’ll always try and fail with those ever so attractive men.

 

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2016 Wrap Up
Dec 31st, 2016 by Dr Karma

We all know the ways in which 2016 has sucked.

I’ve cried a lot more this year, over the deaths of heroes, over the death of reasonable elections, over the fear of how much worse it might get.

But there were good things in 2016.

Melissa Bender and I had a book come out.

I spoke at conferences in Spain, Sweden, London, San Diego, Portland, and Chicago (twice).

I saw Love and Information, The Deep Blue Sea, The Suicide, Aubergine, Keith Lowell Jensen, Emo Philips, Blackberry Winter, Macbeth, Igudesman & Joo, Mr. Burns, Women of Will, the Cashore Marionettes, Disgraced, To Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, Frankenstein, Latin History for Morons with John Leguizamo, The Totalitarians, the opening of the Shrem Museum, and The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.

I did guest lectures and interviews and stage talk backs. I taught courses that I love, films that I love, plays that I love, creative nonfiction that I love.

I taught 15 courses, got my first grad student through her PhD, mentored and performed with my stand-up students, got another Atwood journal out, started prepping for next year’s Oxford course, ran a program, and got chosen to run another.

I made old family favorites and tried new recipes, including my first shepherd’s pie, my first souffle, and my first carnitas. I made tons of soups and stews and proved the worth of my crock pot time and again.

I read books, saw movies, and binge-watched tv.
I recommend The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, Fool by Christopher Moore, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Crown, Stranger Things, Westworld, Deadpool, Shaun the Sheep, Arrival, Rogue One, Lady Dynamite, American Housewife by Helen Ellis, Galavant, Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, W1A, anything by John Scalzi, People of Earth, new comedy by Margaret Cho, Jim Gaffigan, Ali Wong, Dana Carvey, Louis CK, David Cross, Patton Oswalt (all on Netflix), World of Tomorrow (Netflix), The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Transparent, One Mississippi, and Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood–my favorite book in years.
I have survived another year.
I’m repeating to myself the lessons in World of Tomorrow: “Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.”
And, like its protagonist, I am proud of myself for no longer falling in love with rocks.
Happy New Year!
2016, fucking fuck you:
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The Force is With Her, Always
Dec 31st, 2016 by Dr Karma

When I heard that Carrie Fisher had a heart attack on a flight, I thought, “Oh, no–not her, too. Please, no.”

I felt really hopeless about it, though. Of course 2017 would take her away from us.

Now, a few days later, I remind myself that she’ll never be really gone–never be forgotten.

Like every geeky girl, I desperately wanted to be Princess Leia. I had Star Wars memorized. My favorite shirt was an iron-on with the Princess.

Once, I was wearing it when I was sick.

I threw up and then sobbed so uncontrollably that my mother thought I must have cracked a rib. Eventually, I was able to settle down enough to tell her that the crying was because my Princess Leia shirt was ruined. My mother was able to reassure me that the vomit would wash out.

When I outgrew the shirt, I didn’t want to let it go. One day, I decided to turn it into a pillow. Now, I don’t really know how to sew, but I knew I could stumble my way through sewing up the ends. I didn’t know what went into pillows, so I filled it with cotton balls.

As soon as I did so, I realized that must not be what’s in pillows, but the project was almost done!

That pillow has survived a lot of trauma and a lot of moves, including one across the country. It currently lives with the R2D2 in my room.

As I grew up, I began to see Carrie Fisher in new ways–as a writer, a powerful actress, a survivor, and an advocate for mental health.

(Those of us who’d read so much about her relationship with her mother were less surprised by her mother following her into death–it was completely in character.)

I think the most powerful way in which I connected with Fisher, though, was in the use of comedy as a coping mechanism. I’ve often joked that my family crest should have a Byron quote: And if I laugh at any mortal thing, tis that I may not weep.

But I could just as easily use my favorite thing she ever said: If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true.

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Twirling Towards Freedom
Nov 2nd, 2016 by Dr Karma

I usually don’t like it when people say The Simpsons has “predicted” something. I’ve even written a blog about it.

However, I was just remembering a long ago Simpsons episode in which Bill Clinton and Bob Dole put aside their partisan differences to defeat a threat to America–a threat taking the undeserved form of presidential candidates.

And now, both of those men (and ALL living former Presidents, Republican and Democrat) are rejecting exactly the kind of man who would like to make us all build a ray gun to smite his enemies.

Don’t vote for Kang/Kodos.

Vote with Clinton & Dole!

Trump, I mean Kang & Kodos, posing as qualified politicians (and exchanging long protein strings).

Trump, I mean Kang & Kodos, posing as qualified politicians (and exchanging long protein strings).

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It’s My Fault They’re Canceling “The Nightly Show”
Aug 16th, 2016 by Dr Karma

When I read that The Nightly Show is being canceled (last show: Thursday), I felt a deep twinge of guilt.

I haven’t been watching lately.

It should be my kind of thing. I was a devoted viewer of Politically Incorrect a long time ago; I still watch Real Time. I’ve seen every episode of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

I like Larry Wilmore a lot. I wanted to like his show.

I kept trying and trying.

And I do still like Larry Wilmore–he does a great opening segment, I admire the way he brings up hard topics, and I liked his Correspondents’ Dinner speech.

But I hated the overall format of the show.

Soon into the series, it became apparent that I would be hearing the same voices on the roundtable again and again–the voices of Larry’s correspondents/writers. Now, people like Ariana Huffington were on Politically Incorrect frequently, but I was guaranteed a different panel from one night to the next. On Larry’s show, there would be a new guest each night, and then his same people over and over. I like some of them, though I wanted more variety on the panel. I didn’t like others, particularly Ricky Velez. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I don’t get any insight from his slacker-persona input on socio-political issues.

I kept watching. Sometimes, I would only watch the opening, saving the nights I would watch the whole show for when someone awesome was the guest.

And then the panel dissed Bill Nye. Yes, they dissed Bill Nye the Science Guy.

I expected more. Larry Wilmore is a self-professed space nerd. He invited Bill Nye on. And then he and two panelists, including Ricky Velez, treated Bill like shit–they interrupted basically every sentence and told him that science, and his work, didn’t matter to their lives.

And that was it.

I’m not the only one who objected to this particular episode, so I know I’m not alone in jumping ship, but I feel badly that Wilmore is leaving Comedy Central.

I’m still rooting for him, but I want him in a better format.

And I’m rooting for Bill Nye too.

the-nightly-show-july-8-2016

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The Simpsons and Rio
Jul 19th, 2016 by Dr Karma

rio simpsons

Many years ago, I wrote a column for Mental Floss, Four Simpsons Controversies that Didn’t End in Lawsuits. Number 1 on the list was show’s relationship with Rio. In short, after the family visited Rio in “Blame it On Lisa,” the minister of tourism threatened to sue the show, arguing that the show would hurt the tourism industry, with its depiction of slums, roaming monkeys, and crime (while not the sum of Rio, all true). The Simpsons didn’t apologize and in fact continued to make references to Rio, including a line about Mr. Teeny’s uncle being the minister of tourism.

teeny

Now, as the Rio Olympics are almost upon us, all of the news about Rio is dire. As this CNN article details, Rio is broke, crime is rampant, the zika virus and super bacteria threaten health, and the infrastructure for the games just isn’t in place.

In “The Wife Aquatic,” Lisa exclaims that a certain place is “the most disgusting place we’ve ever gone.”

Bart: What about Brazil?

Lisa: After Brazil.

Sadly, the police in Rio seem to agree, as they have been welcoming visitors at the airport with this sign: rio

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South Park’s Awesome 19th Season
Dec 10th, 2015 by Dr Karma

As an expert on The Simpsons, I’m always asked about other cartoons for adults. For a long time, I watched them all. Several years ago, though, the boy asked why we were watching American Dad when it was so sexist.

“Because I feel like I have to–people always ask me about this stuff.”

And then I turned it off. American Dad and Family Guy both had their moments. As a member of their creators’ generation, I sometimes wonder why my students like the stuff, considering how you really had to grow up in the 80s to get many of the references. However, I don’t like either show enough to watch it. Specifically, I hate Peter Griffin with a passion. A passion. And I find the way he treats his daughter beyond repulsive.

I love Robot Chicken, however (except for Bitch Puddin), and Archer.

And I still watch South Park.

I remember the first few episodes, viewed with friends in college. In fact, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” is still one of my favorites. And I highly recommend “Eat, Pray, Queef,” about the double standards in the way we treat women’s bodies and women in comedy.

Not all South Park episodes are great (it’s impossible to be on for almost 20 years and hit one out of the park each time). One of their great strengths is often one of their weaknesses, in fact. They can put together an episode in a week, which means they can be topical, but that very topicality can also date the episodes fairly quickly.

The show has also fallen victim to its own success in the same way The Simpsons has. Both shows were groundbreaking; both shows were criticized heavily for being the downfall of modern civilization. And then both shows became relatively quaint compared to their successors. This is simply the way of things. The shows are different than they were at the beginning, of course, but they transformed audiences’ expectations and paved the way for new shows to signal the end of time–leading some to dissmiss them because they are still themselves instead of Archer.

That said, this season of South Park has been amazing. For the first time, the show has done a solid season arc (it’s still tied in some topical references).

southpark

The arc is not a simple one, but explores several themes: gentrification, advertising/corporate power, and being politically correct. As we have a full season to play, the issues get to be more complex than usual. In earlier episodes, for example, being PC was simply made fun of; here, you can see that some characters need to be more sensitive to differences, but that there is a way to go too far.

The show’s treatment of Caitlyn Jenner has gotten a lot of attention. Bringing her in, of course, was a catalyst to start talking about being PC. In the first episode, Kyle is given detention for saying she isn’t a hero. I sympathized.

My students kept wanting to talk bout Caitlyn, and I didn’t. I am in full support of trans rights, and I know some trans individuals. This was all true before Caitlyn. For most of my students, though, Caitlyn was their introduction to these issues, but I didn’t want to talk about her. Why? Because I’ve never watched the Kardashians (though I’ve watched The Soup talk about them). In fact, when I first heard the name of their show, I hoped there was a tongue in cheek Star Trek spin off, since Kardashian sounds like a race you’d find there. When I found out why the family was on tv–because Kim had sex and people got to see it–I was definitely turned off. I don’t watch reality tv. And I’ve been irritated for years about having to know what some vapid people do because they’re famous for being famous now.

So I didn’t want to talk about Caitlyn because I didn’t want to talk about Bruce.

However, I did want to write about how awesome South Park has been this season. I was going to do so a few days ago, but grading and some medical procedures got in the way. In the meantime, Sonia Saraiya wrote a great piece about it.

 

Other recommendations from the past few months: The Grinder, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Simpsons, Jessica Jones, Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None, The Good Wife . . .

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