Archive for the ‘Project: N.B.’ Category

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Paul Watson Watches TV by Dan O’Brien

27/06/2011

The War Reporter Paul Watson Watches TV During an Arctic Blizzard

By Dan O’Brien

Author’s Note: Since 2007 I have been corresponding with the war reporter Paul Watson, as he traveled around the world, from southeast Asia to Afghanistan and Iraq. Paul is most well known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography in 1994 for his photograph of a fallen American soldier in the streets of Mogadishu. He claims that when he took this picture he heard a voice, a voice that he believes belonged to the dead soldier, telling him, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” The play we are writing, The Body of an American, is concerned with Paul’s life and career, and specifically the story of this haunting. In February of 2010 we finally met in person in Ulukhaktok, in the High Arctic of the Northwest Territories in Canada, where Paul was enjoying a brief stint as the reporter for the “Arctic and Aboriginal Beat” for the Toronto Star. He is currently back in Afghanistan now.

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I like John Mayer. You like John Mayer?
I like Ryan Adams also. And Queen
Latifah. Her sound’s hot. I like to watch
TV with the sound off and just listen
to my iPod. That okay with you? This
sucks. This sucks. There’s nothing good on TV!
I usually watch just sports, like hockey
or football? sometimes entertainment news
because it’s stupid and I love it when
celebrities do stupid things. It helps
me to relax. Also I like curling
as an Olympic sport. I love hearing
the women’s curling team screaming, Harder!
Faster! All of these women with their brooms
that look more like Swiffer WetJets rubbing
some kind of path in the ice for the weight
or pot or stone or whatever it is
screaming, Harder! Faster! As if that does
anything, really! What about this show,
The Bachelor? Have you seen The Bachelor? Look,
she’s pretending to cry. She’s pretending
to cry! What are all these people, actors?
Strippers? She’s trying so damn hard to cry
real tears! Harder! Faster! How’s it look
out there? You can’t tell if the snow’s falling
down from the sky or blowing off the ice
in the wind. Must be gusting up to what
65 miles an hour? Why don’t you make
a TV show out of this place? You could
pitch it back home in Hollywood: Newhart 
meets Nanook of the North. All the crazies
you run into at a so-called hotel
that’s really more of a youth hostel or
low-budget rehab somewhere far away
above the tree line. Want another glass
of Bordeaux? Is that your mug? You look bored,
I can tell. You think I’m wasting your time
here, watching TV. When I’m on the phone
with my brothers and sisters, they’re talking
about, you know, problems at work. I say,
How long have we been talking? Ten minutes.
I tell them: Now you’re ten minutes closer
to dying. Which annoys them. It bugs me
to the core though, that people just don’t see
how quickly we die. Whether you’re driving
home from work, or suntanning on a beach
in Phuket and this wave comes out of nowhere
and that’s it, the end. Unmute this. I love
this movie. Look at those legs! Meryl Streep
is on the run, or she’s on the river
actually, ha ha, in a rafting boat
trying to get away from this psycho
killer Kevin Bacon. Is this movie
good? Or shit? No it’s shit. But God, Meryl
Streep is so gorgeous.

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Dan O’Brien is a former Hodder Fellow in playwriting at Princeton University. His play The Cherry Sisters Revisited premiered in the 2010 Humana Festival at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville. Poems have appeared recently in 32 Poems, Margie, Greensboro Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review, and he has recently received a 2011 Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center residency in support of his play The Body of an American.

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N.B. | Picnic at Hanging Rock by Keith Ekiss

18/04/2011

I’ve never been to Australia. But, I imagine if I ever visit, the landscape will seem familiar. I was raised in the Sonoran desert of Arizona and have fond childhood memories of barrenness, long horizons, and hiking in 100 degree heat among volcanic outcrops like the one three girls disappear into, never to return, early in Peter Weir’s 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. As a writer, I’m drawn to moments of estrangement, disconnection, and absence, to the genuine mystery of the real, and this begins, in part, from growing up in that forbidding landscape.

It’s February 14th, 1900 and the schoolgirls of Appleyard College in Victoria State have been granted an afternoon’s respite by their stern headmistress. It would be easy to classify the movie as a frocks and bodices period piece, but these girls are spooky from the get go: they smile as if they know they will disappear; wash their faces like a ritual cleansing before a sacrifice; read love poetry and press the flowers they will be remembered by in books. I won’t be here much longer, one says. They dance in circles holding hands; they scatter petals.

A horse-drawn carriage ride past eucalyptus, the land is flat, brown, hot, and dusty.

A picnic in petticoats, a butcher’s knife slices through a heart-shaped cake. Drawn away from the adults, further and further into the maze of the mountains, the girls seem lead on by absence itself (and the cheesy pan flute soundtrack by Zamfir). We may be the only living creatures in the whole world. They slip between rocks like mountain spirits returning to their rightful home. The sun is glaring, unrelenting, dizzying. The landscape is the enemy. Be careful, there could be snakes, the very phrase I heard in my childhood. Their disappearance seems at once inevitable and without reason. As a boy, I wandered through the desert to the point where I could barely see my house in the distance. The girls were lost forever, carried by some force beyond their comprehension. It could just as well have been me.

*

Keith Ekiss’s first book of poems is Pima Road Notebook. Read an excerpt here at The Owls site >>

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You’re Not Wrong: Inception

04/08/2010
You’re Not Wrong | Inception

Verizon's street poster for Inception

Ben Walters (BW) & J. M. Tyree (JMT) have been talking about movies together since 1995, often amicably. They co-wrote a critical appreciation of The Big Lebowski for The British Film Institute’s Film Classics book series. (This project, You’re Not Wrong, takes its name from that movie.) They shared notes – via email, chat, and document sharing – on Christopher Nolan’s Inception, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a corporate spy who retrieves secrets by invading targets’ dreams. JMT watched it in San Francisco and BW saw it in London. Ad Hamilton added this rejoinder to the exchange, which was originally posted on 3Quarksdaily here.

Bath of Dreamings

JMT: Here’s a mainstream picture we both looked forward to watching, Inception, Christopher Nolan’s summer hit. It’s a trap to worry overly about a Hollywood blockbuster being a Hollywood blockbuster, but I feel baffled by the critical reaction. The people next to me at the multiplex were loudly oohing and ahhing over the film as though it were a display of fireworks. And since then I’ve talked to several very smart people who enjoyed the film. What did I miss?

BW: I’ve got to admit I’m not quite sure. Maybe people like having their legs pulled? With sumptuous production design?

JMT: The new Film Quarterly (Summer, 2010) has a thoughtful book review by Martin Fradley about the state of the contemporary film industry. It talks about Hollywood’s “new auteurs” – deal-makers, producers, agents, and distributors. Maybe that’s Christopher Nolan at this point, a corporate auteur, the total bundle – which is intriguing given how weird his films are.

BW: In a way I think that’s the most interesting aspect of Inception – he has the clout and the industrial nous to mount a massive shaggy dog story like this. And it’s certainly another exploration of his pet themes – the ways memory, identity and narrative shape our lived reality.

JMT: He doesn’t really “do” joyful moments of intimacy. Or humor.

Undone Minds

BW: No one comes to Nolan for hugs or chuckles. His films are meant to be conventionally satisfying riddle movies, by and large, within which frame he can explore more genuinely upsetting ideas of identity. When it works, it makes you question whether you actually have any right to your opinion about yourself. When it doesn’t, it comes off as dull, pretentious, over-designed guff.

JMT: My frustration watching Inception was that it barely explores the fascinating pathways opened by its own premise.

BW: Yes, I had a similar feeling…

JMT: The idea that someone could extract information from your dreams is delightfully terrifying. Tie this to corporate espionage and you have a potential minefield of cultural comment. Those levels of meaning certainly can be extracted. A critic could become an extractor, like Cobb, sent into the film on a mission to retrieve its moments of subversiveness. But on the whole the film doesn’t really go very far in this direction.

BW: Not remotely. Which is a bit surprising after Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which did have some political engagement. Nolan’s always interested in the ways in which unguardedness can undo a mind, and how terrifying it can be to be confronted with a reality from which your mind has assiduously quarantined itself. And he has explored them in gripping ways elsewhere; here, not so much. But he is predominantly interested in individual identity, I think; it’s rewarding when there is a political dimension but I think that’s incidental rather than essential to him.

Unicorns & Tops

JMT: Surely Inception sets itself up in comparison with Blade Runner, with the film’s “totems” like the spinning top invoking the origami unicorns (and so forth) of Ridley Scott’s film, as well as the ultimate puzzle about one’s one interior sense of self being manufactured. But in Blade Runner it really matters whether Deckard is an android. In Inception, the only thing at stake in the ending is whether everything we’ve seen is just one guy helping some mogul with a business problem, or else, well, you know…

BW: But I think you might be short-selling the potential cultural heft. The idea of deepening corporate invasion of identity is a resonant one, I think. Identity theft, targeted advertising, online surrender of privacy, all these things do affect the construction and definition of identity in ways that Inception could bounce off. By which I mean that it is timely – I’m not staking great claims for the way in which it engages these subjects.

JMT: It’s all there, but Inception oddly avoids sustained engagement with these “political” matters, or whatever you might call them, in favor of a personal story. Cobb has got to get back to his kids.

BW: The potential is there but not really tapped. But I think it’s worth noting that by tying these things so explicitly to profiteering and careerism, Inception is a slightly different beast from other reality-benders like, say, Blade Runner or The Matrix.

JMT: Maybe if we saw profiteering and careerism as real motives – as it is, we’re supposed to care more about whether Cobb makes it home than whether it’s okay for minds to be invaded and ravaged.

BW: Sure, the corporatisation is more of a background. It’s really a one-last-job heist movie. And the ethical implications are barely engaged with – Ellen Page having one line about it maybe being a bit questionable.

JMT: But, like, trippy fun!

BW: Right! But the fun wears thin. The story isn’t much more emotionally engaging than it is politically thoughtful. This points to a somewhat paradoxical problem for Nolan: he’s fascinated by identity but not much good with character.

Mazes & Monsters

JMT: Speaking of Ellen Page as tech wiz Ariadne (she makes and unwinds mazes). It’s an untypical move not to make her role into a romantic interest. Page looks desexualized, while Cobb’s wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) is smoldering but absent/fatal. There are love interests in Nolan’s films, but is there much – or any? – genuine intimacy that unfolds in the “now”? I’m hard pressed to think of examples. Again, this is a point of interest, this weird lack of something human…

BW: Well, his protagonists tend to (mis)remember and investigate rather than, um, live. We root for them because they’re the narrative engine, not because we’re actually invested in their welfare to any great degree. And I think this brings us to another problem with Inception – this lack of facility for the quirks and charms of actual present people result in a film basically comprised of really boring, thuddingly rational dream sequences.

JMT: They’re not that dreamy. A friend pointed out that the snow level of the narrative/dream is a Bond film. And really it’s also an Inception video game. Blam! I’m using the bigger gun now. Someone else I talked to reminded me, though, that since the dreams are constructed they would tend to be less weird than “real” dreams. So that can be unwound as possibly more interesting…

BW: Cop-out! Dreams should be weird and woozy and hot and fickle. Inception plays like a two-and-a-half-hour American Express ad.

JMT: It’s not truly surreal or even very disjointed, apart from a few moments. In Memento the structure relentlessly compels the eye. Here, as in The Prestige, it’s overly elaborate, a three-layer cake, in which each detail is perfect but…

I know the tricks...

BW: The Prestige is the definite companion piece here – another essay on a soufflé of a subject executed with high-spec machine tooling. With The Prestige I wanted to shout “Go and watch F for Fake! That’s how to make a movie about magic tricks!”

JMT: “I know the tricks,” Cobb says in Inception. The Prestige handles magic tricks and Inception handles dream tricks. Both have a notion of the world being a false appearance, a deception. This links Inception with the concerns of cinema, and also with film history. But unlike in Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, or F for Fake, no paranoia is induced by Inception. Why?

BW: Perhaps because Nolan’s such a rationalist. There’s never a feeling in his films that things are really coming off the rails – not in a fundamental way. An individual’s situation, even his identity, might be under threat, but the world itself is securely moored. Dreams and magic are always at the service of The Real. Even that dream idyll Cobb and Mal indulge for 50 years – how dull is that! They could do or be anything they could conceive, and  they ROUND UP ALL THE HOUSES THEY’VE LIVED IN?! Stay UNDER, do us all a favour.

JMT: Inception skirts a number of very pressing contemporary concerns, but drowns or submerges them in its bath of dreamings. To my mind the film is a parable of avoidance of some kind, not engagement, subversion, or disruption. On a tangent, the ad campaign for Inception was sponsored by Verizon, which like all the other big telecoms colluded in domestic surveillance. Funny, that! It’s simultaneously “obvious” and strangely “unspoken,” rather like the film’s own unexamined themes.

BW: I think you could probably say that “bath of dreamings” line of most Hollywood pictures. It’s just a disappointment that the one that takes dreams as its explicit subject does so little with them. But yes, it’s timeliness again – you can mine the project for all sorts of resonances, intended, incidental, frustrated; it obviously comes out of a cultural space loaded with concerns about unacknowledged surveillance of the interior self. But in some ways it could have been made at any time: it’s basically concerned with anxiety about the unaccountable unconscious, which is hardly new ground for cinema, or art. On a less serious note, given all these frames in which time passes at different rates, Nolan missed a chance for a great gag – he could have had a Hollywood ticking-clock countdown with a justification for taking ten times as long as it should!

JMT: On that note, why is this film so humorless? So many of the scenes in Inception take the following form: “Please sit down at this cafe/desk/airplane seat so that you and I can have an important one-on-one conversation about a previously undisclosed aspect of the science fiction in this film.” When I saw Dileep Rao (Yusuf) enter the picture, I remembered how funny he was in Drag Me to Hell. That Wellesian sense of the con-man prestidigitator in Raimi’s film is lacking here.

BW: Nolan’s con artists never have any fun.

PR: The original "inception"

JMT: A dark comedy using the premise of Inception could be enjoyable. This has been done, but what if the protagonist was tasked with arranging the sponsorship deals on those implanted dreams? Since the whole experience is manufactured anyway, why not have the person driving a Volkswagen, listening to a JBL stereo system, drinking Diet Coke and chewing Doublemint? But that’s a tangent…What’s the picture’s most intriguing aspect for you? For me it’s probably seeing action sequences in which the characters are asleep.

BW: I was intrigued – or rather confused – by the film’s starting notion that it’s hard to plant ideas in people’s heads. Isn’t that how publicity works? Isn’t that why everyone is talking about this not-very-interesting movie…?

JMT: So, what else are you watching these days? Any recommendations?

BW: I’ve been watching a bunch of Seinfeld and have been surprised how much of it revolves around the vagaries of landline use – competing for payphones, missing calls to your home phone – and how much of a period piece it feels because of this.

JMT: Excellent, I love seeing payphones! This reminds me of the Beeper King boyfriend in 30 Rock, who has to rely on payphones when he’s out of the house. Also for online viewing, I’ve been compelled by clips of Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho,” a slowed-down version of Hitchcock’s film that takes a day to unfold. I came to Gordon’s work belatedly, after reading Don DeLillo’s new novel Point Omega.

BW: That’s a beautiful piece. Hypnotic and, I guess, kind of dreamlike. Certainly brings us back to the unaccountable unconscious…

B for Basement: Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime

*Read Ad Hamilton’s rejoinder to the exchange here.

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N.B.: New Novels in Three Lines

03/07/2010

Writers are using new technologies to write stories. One might think of them as new versions of Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines, which often dealt with unsavory aspects of real life. A small sampler from Twitter feeds below, reposted here with gratitude to the writers.

New Novels in Three Lines (or Fewer)

Sunshine, smartest kid in pre-K, screamed, “FUCKYOUBITCH!” Lead teacher told me: “Lock her in the closet when she gets like that.”

–Stephanie Soileau

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They tore down my friend’s grandma’s house and built a new credit union. Otherwise Tombstone’s pretty much the same.

–Justin St. Germain

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Snowing in New Orleans for the fourth time in twenty years.

–Pia Z. Ehrhardt

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When someone 15 years my junior flirts with me I feel like throwing up and wonder if part of their fantasy is me puking on their shoes.

–Gabrielle Calvocoressi

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The sound of a toddler violently puking at the departure gate is ominous indeed.

–Alicia Jo Rabins

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N.B. On The Spirit of the Beehive

24/06/2010

On The Spirit of the Beehive

Notes on the 1973 Spanish classic by Frederick Schroeder, Stacey Swann, & Emily Mitchell

I first saw Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive in college, sitting in the front row of a small campus theater. The most striking feature to me, initially, was the careful and perfect use of light throughout the picture. It’s something that has kept me returning to watch the film over and over again. It was only later that I learned the cameraman, Luis Cuadrado, was going blind while making the movie. An assistant would take Polaroids of the scenes and Cuadrado would direct the lighting by looking through a magnifying glass at these pictures. Later Cuadrado committed suicide after the tumor in his brain became too painful to face. Erice would go on to make only two more films, one every ten years. The Spirit of the Beehive has become a film full of the mystery of death for me – both in front of the camera and behind it. With each new viewing I find myself consumed by the thought of the pictures the blind cameraman used to light what he couldn’t see. What happened to these photographs? What story would they tell?

-Frederick Schroeder, Cinematographer

It’s not just that I don’t like many of the films that most intelligent people love, like the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen. (See, I’ve lost you already, haven’t I? You’re already disgusted with me. Perhaps you’ll keep reading if I allow that I do admire Badlands?) I also often like movies that have been panned by critics and disappeared off of movie screens before you notice they are there (Zero Effect, The Darwin Awards, the seriously flawed but still interesting Pandorum).

While I cannot fully figure out why my taste seems so aberrant, I can locate one component: I’m a slave to dialogue. I love a beautifully composed shot as much as anyone, but if those shots are standing in for people actually communicating with one another, I get antsy and even angry. So I was worried as I started watching The Spirit of the Beehive; there’s not a whole lot of talking in this film. I admit there were a couple of scenes where I wanted to yell at the parents, Just open your mouth and speak! But on the whole, I loved this film despite its silence. Much of this is due to the performance of Ana Torrent as young Ana. The expressions on her face are so effective and complicated they make me forget she isn’t speaking.

The movie also captures moments of childhood that I had long forgotten. At school, the sisters Ana and Isabel (Isabel Telleria), along with the other girls, learn anatomy from a large cartoonish figure called Don Jose. (Tiny Ana must crawl up on a chair to replace his missing eyes.) Jose reminded me a great deal of the blow-up Alphabet People in my kindergarten classroom. Even smaller things, such as the sound of a pencil being rolled up and down on a school desk, or the way, in the middle of the night, strange noises always occur as if in answer to the frightening thing being discussed among siblings, made me suddenly feel like a child again.

And what the movie does most beautifully is remind us of how any sentence, any throwaway comment from a parent or sibling, can hugely alter the way we see the world at that age. Again this is where Torrent’s acting is so impressive. We watch her face and can see her absorbing the information and realigning her worldview to adapt to it.

-Stacey Swann, Writer/Editor

What is the difference between how a child takes a step and how an adult performs the same movement? At one point in The Spirit of the Beehive, there is a scene in which children from a small town enter the schoolhouse in the morning, one after another. There are no adults in the scene, and as a result the viewer has the fleeting illusion that the figures she is watching are fully grown. But this impression only lasts for a moment. Very quickly, you notice that these are children by the way they move.

Through the film we see the child protagonist, Ana, and her sister, Isabel, running or walking through their town and the dry winter fields that surround it. We see that each step is an absorbing effort for a small body negotiating a world not made on its scale. When Ana walks over the plowed furrows of the fields to the abandoned house where the girls imagine Frankenstein’s monster lives, she must march, lifting each foot high, her body tipped forward and arms swinging. There is nothing casual or accidental in her movements because her lack of height and strength don’t allow her to forget her body even for a minute. She appears to be fully present in her surroundings at all times because her actions require such an effort. Even when she’s imagining the monster, she actually looks for his hiding place, actively searching, peering around corners and into shadows.

For children, the film seems to say, the physical and fantastical worlds are one and the same. Ana believes in a really-existing monster that lives down a well. When a wounded partisan hides in the abandoned house, Ana thinks she’s found the monster at last. She has no reason to doubt that he would show up in this way.

This is a film about dismemberment and reassembly. Frankenstein’s monster – a film the girls watch near the beginning of the film – acts as a founding myth, the man constructed from parts of other men. The Spirit of the Beehive shows us the way in which adults, unlike children, are creatures that live comfortably with their own dissections and disjunctions, that can tolerate for better or worse, a world in unmatched pieces. Ana’s father begins the film disguised as a monster in his bee-keeping suit. He is an entomologist who retreats from his family into his experiments, some of which provoke artificially frantic and fruitless activity among his bees, turning the hive into its own type of Frankenstein’s monster. The girls’ mother, meanwhile, writes letters to a love she knew before the war, mailing them in secret. Adults are people who take things apart and put them back together, including themselves. At school, the girls learn anatomy from a dummy named Don Jose, placing on Don Jose “his” heart, lungs, and eyes.

The film is the story of Ana coming into an awareness of fragmentation; the separation of experience into physical and psychological, real and imaginary. At the end, we see her begin to talk to the monster in her mind, developing the capacity for abstraction that allows adults to hold two separate varieties of reality in our minds at once, a necessary skill for living in a dismembered world.

-Emily Mitchell, Novelist

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Letter to Anne Lamott by Suzanne Rivecca

03/05/2010

"Food was strictly rationed. Students were deprived of provisions, sleeping bags, and shelter..." (Jon Krakauer, "Loving Them to Death," Outside Magazine, October, 1995.)

An Open Letter to Anne Lamott

By Suzanne Rivecca

I was excited to hear that you had a new novel out, “Imperfect Birds,” that reprised the characters from “Crooked Little Heart” and “Rosie.” I’ve read the latter two books over and over. I’ve treasured them for their emotional honesty, uncompromising depiction of complex family and romantic relationships, and heartrendingly relatable characters who, like all of us, are imperfect, struggling, selfish, but somehow ennobled by their flawed, foundering, fierce devotion to and concern for the people they love.  The chronicles of the Ferguson family are precious to me largely because of the palpable sense of bittersweet hope and celebration that haunts me long after I’ve finished reading.  Through these characters, you illuminate the excruciating choices people have to make, and the consequences—internal and external—of those choices. The toll they take. The isolation they engender. In the wake of a difficult choice, the characters—and the books—never quite stop second-guessing, analyzing, rationalizing, longing for the safety of absolutism but ultimately rejecting the false comfort of it. Above all, the novels, and the people in them, refuse to cop out.

Much to my disappointment, I found “Imperfect Birds” to be, at its essence, one giant copout. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the subject matter—out-of-control teens and the “tough love” necessary to rein them in—wasn’t so close to my heart.  Like you, I live in the Bay Area. From 2008 to 2010, I worked as a grant-writer at Homeless Youth Alliance, a drop-in center for homeless teenagers and young adults in the Haight Ashbury. The kids of HYA range in age from 13 to mid-20s. Most of them are runaways. Many grew up in the foster care system and/or survived familial abuse and neglect. More than half have serious mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. The majority are habitual users of alcohol and drugs. Everyone who works directly with the kids at HYA is a former runaway, and understands what kind of intervention is needed to enable these kids to find a path from self-destruction to autonomy and empowerment. And, over and over again, we have seen the devastating consequences that come when well-meaning, scared-to-death parents make the choice to send “problem kids” to a wilderness survival program, boot camp, or other “tough love” environment where the therapeutic philosophy is to “break kids down in order to build them back up.”

In “Imperfect Birds,” 17-year-old Rosie, a straight-A student and high achiever, uses drugs. She drinks. She has unsafe sex. She lies, compulsively and hurtfully, to Elizabeth and James, her parents; she deceives them and breaks their hearts, and she does so with an infuriating self-righteousness that conceals a secret well of misery, anxiety, and low self-esteem. After imposing a regimen of restrictions and groundings that don’t work, her mom and stepdad make the very painful decision to “kidnap” her and send her, against her will, to a 3-month wilderness program in Utah. To pay for it, they have to ransack their savings, her college fund, and the IRA her deceased birth father left her. Rosie is furious and resentful at first, of course, but ultimately the program restores her self-respect and well-being as well as her relationship with her parents. After much parental hand-wringing and tears, the book ends with the unequivocal sense that Elizabeth and James have done the right thing—indeed, the only thing possible. Not to kidnap and forcibly enroll their daughter in such a program would have been a dereliction of duty and a cosigning of Rosie’s death certificate.   There is no ambiguity about this. The reader is not left to draw his or her own conclusions; the conclusions are drawn for us, in a way that sublimates complexity in the service of suburban complacency.

I could recount hundreds of examples from my workplace that refute the book’s assertion, but for the sake of time, I’ll just cite a few. My boss, for instance, a brilliant 30-year-old who’s been working at HYA since she was 19 and freshly off the streets, was sent to a rehab program in Utah by her desperate parents when she was 16. This program has since been hit with multiple lawsuits by former students and their parents for cruel and inhumane treatment of children, and has a laundry list of websites detailing and exposing its abuses. Utah, in particular—the setting for Rosie’s redemption—is notorious for having little to no government regulation or oversight of its 1000 behavior modification programs for teens. These programs are a cottage industry, capitalizing on parents’ fears and desperation, and they are allowed to operate with impunity. The program my boss was sent to seemed to run on a curriculum of emotional terrorism and humiliation.  My boss, while there, was shut up in solitary confinement for not “admitting” that she had an eating disorder (she didn’t; she was underweight from chronic heroin abuse).  When kids “progressed” to the stage of being able to go to the bathroom without supervision, they were required to loudly sing The Star Spangled Banner as they relieved themselves, to prove they weren’t throwing up, drinking, or using drugs in the bathroom.  Many kids—primarily the boys—were beaten or put in restraints or restrictive “holds.” Letters home were read and censored; phone calls were monitored. A kid could be held there as long as staff deemed he/she hadn’t yet “recovered.” As long as parents kept paying the exorbitant tuition, the program held on to their kids. My boss’ parents could only afford a month’s worth of treatment. When they ran out of money, their daughter was pronounced “cured” and released. She used heroin and lived on the street for three more years.

Then there’s the story of Clyde, a 26-year old from New Mexico with bipolar disorder whose parents sent him to an offshore boot camp when he began “acting out”—drinking, using drugs, getting in fights—as a 14-year-old.  At this program, he was routinely beaten, hog-tied as punishment, and forced to ask staff’s permission to perform the most basic actions: using the bathroom, entering or exiting a room, standing up or sitting down, eating and drinking, etc.  When he was released, severely traumatized with a mental illness worsened by the stress and degradation he’d endured, he ran away to San Francisco, where he spent the next several years drinking himself into oblivion and fathering illegitimate children.  This was the state he was in when HYA staff encountered him. HYA counselors spent years working with Clyde, mediating between him and his frantic parents, and helping rebuild the trust and love that was shattered by the ill-informed decision they made to send him away. Clyde is now on good terms with his parents, is taking his medication for bipolar disorder, and is no longer homeless. Today, his parents admit that sending him to the boot camp was the worst decision they possibly could have made, and they’re grateful that the consequences weren’t fatal. They still keep in touch with Clyde’s counselors at HYA, and refer to them as “part of our family.”

In HYA’s case files, there are many more examples of the consequences of sending troubled teens to these kinds of programs, and none of them has a happy ending. Even if the programs aren’t flagrantly physically abusive—and many, if not most, are—by their very nature they are a gross betrayal of every tenet in the adolescent value system.  Indeed, they seem almost designed to permanently estrange and alienate teenagers from adults and all they represent.  Invasion of privacy, coercion, intrusion into the most intimate and private sanctums of inner and outer life, the stripping away of dignity, the denial of individuality and uniqueness, the forced acceptance of diagnoses or therapist-imposed “revelations” that are inaccurate and insulting: no teenager in his/her right mind would respond positively to such tactics.   These programs seem to ignore—or, worse, to blatantly capitalize upon—the fact that teenagers “act out” because they feel like they have no control. Their “bad behavior” is reactionary, a backwards stab at self-definition. Acts that we, from our comfortable perch of security and stability, view as self-destructive are to their minds self-preserving, empowering, and defining. It’s counterproductive to try and “save” these kids by taking even more control away from them. The only hope is to help them reshape their own definition of what constitutes autonomy and independence, while acknowledging that there are going to be slip-ups and remissions along the way. I could launch into a treatise on “harm reduction,” the proven treatment philosophy practiced by HYA and many other youth and adult programs all over the country, but there’s plenty of literature available about it, and if you’re interested in learning more you can visit HYA’s website (homelessyouthalliance.org) or that of the Harm Reduction Coalition (harmreduction.org).

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Back to “Imperfect Birds.” So much of this book is a beautiful, wrenching evocation of what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Which is why the book’s facile and simplistic betrayal of Rosie—and of lost kids everywhere—in its latter half was so painful for me. In its last third, the novel becomes an apologia for parents who resort to betraying their kids, and for the programs that extract huge sums of money to help them do it.  There were several passages that made me want to throw the book across the room. A sampling: Rosie’s high school friend Jody, a drug addict whose own parents hired “obese Samoans” to kidnap her from her bed in the middle of the night and spirit her off to a rehab program, by the end of the novel is clean, sober, and reduced to a functionary whose only role is to endorse and justify Rosie’s banishment:

Jody took Elizabeth [Rosie’s mom] by the hands. “You did the right thing,” she told the older woman sternly. “You made the same messy decision my parents did, when I made such a mess of my life. They know now that they did the right thing, and I do, too, for sure. And Rosie will too, someday.”

And if that contrived display of Stockholm Syndrome isn’t enough of an endorsement, we have Elizabeth guiltily Googling “deaths at wilderness facilities, from exposure, suicide, violence.”   All she finds are “endless diatribes against wilderness programs in general,” which are apparently nullified by  “testimonial essays by kids who said they would have died without intervention, or ended up in jail or as runaways.” Then she Googles “teenage traffic fatalities” and readers are left with the implication that more kids die from drunk driving than from wilderness programs. We can follow this line of logic to its inevitable conclusion: even more kids would be dead from traffic fatalities if it weren’t for wilderness programs.  The narration neglects to mention that the vast majority of those “endless diatribes” against wilderness programs are written by kids who have survived them, by their parents, and by the ACLU.

What bothered me most, though, is the book’s portrayal of the “lost kids” who hang out in the “Parkade,” a public space in Rosie’s fictional Marin County small town. Rosie’s stepdad, James, decides to write a KQED piece about these kids.  It’s here that James—a character I loved in the two preceding books—begins his horrifying transformation into C.W. Nevius, the incompetent San Francisco Chronicle columnist who writes hand-wringing, hate-mongering, and grossly inaccurate “articles” about the homeless kids in the Haight. (Interestingly, he lives in affluent Walnut Creek).  According to James, the Parkade kids aren’t actually homeless; they simply choose to look and live that way. They have homes—stable, affluent, loving homes—to go back to, if only they could stop getting high and realize that their parents love them and want the best for them. This is the prevailing attitude of police and homeowners in the Haight. In fact, I’ve sat in on a police precinct meeting in which the captain, with a totally straight face, announced that the homeless kids in the Haight aren’t actually homeless. By arresting them for sitting on sidewalks and by confiscating and destroying their beloved dogs, she claimed, we’re actually helping them, by giving them no choice but to go back to their loving, caring homes!  The neighbors attending this meeting—all white, well-dressed, professional, and pro-Obama social progressives, according to the bumper stickers on their Priuses—nodded along and felt sanctified in their visceral contempt for poverty and suffering.   I can imagine these very same neighbors, and the police captain, reading “Imperfect Birds” and feeling smugly justified in their prejudices and assumptions. If a popular and acclaimed Bay Area writer—a vocally liberal and tolerant one at that—says that a.) these kids aren’t homeless, and b.) all they need is a good kick in the pants, then, by God, what further endorsement do we need?

Toward the end of the book, Elizabeth, James, and their best friend, Rae, attend a maudlin, New Agey “candle ceremony” at the Parkade to memorialize kids who have died from those damn traffic fatalities, have run away, or have become junkies. Joined by a few kids who wander over from the bus kiosk, the town’s adults gather together to “consecrate this piece of land on which so many of the town’s children had gotten so lost.” It was the piece of land, apparently, that was to blame, not any internal or external circumstances of the kids’ lives.  Someone plays guitar and a choir sings “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  This is followed by a self-congratulatory speech by Rae:

Tonight, we lit something inside ourselves to be spread, lit a tiny flame to consecrate toxic ground, to consecrate our caring, our attention to this matter, our wish that there would be help for the parents of the dead. My belief is that their children did not die in vain and their children did not die alone…Each candle is so temporary, but it says that there is light and there are people who can help: it says the time is now.

The time is now, presumably, to throw your kid upon the tender mercies of perfect strangers in the unregulated Utah hinterlands. While reading this scene, I wondered about those peripheral kids, the ones hanging out in the bus kiosk watching a bunch of sanctimonious yuppies light a candle in acknowledgment of their heartbroken parents. Maybe they were thinking, “Why don’t they ask me why I left home? Why don’t they ask me why I started drinking? If this ceremony’s about us, why aren’t they coming over to actually talk to us? What are they afraid of?”

I put those same questions to you, and to anyone else who presumes to know why and how kids end up lost.  Come down from Marin and visit Haight Street. You’ll find the kids everywhere—on street corners, on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park, and, especially, in HYA’s drop-in center.  Be warned:  They’re not cute. Many of them have no social skills; they left home too early to develop any. Some of them will be drunk, covered with sores, visibly sick. A lot of them will be asking you for change.  Almost all of them will have a dog—usually a well-socialized pit/lab mix constantly in danger of confiscation by police—that they love more than their life and care for with a singular devotion.  Know that the kids’ appearance can be off-putting. Your first and most primal impulse will be to look away. But try to supersede that.  Look them in the eye and say hi. Ask them how it’s going. You don’t have to give them money, but they appreciate food just as much.  If it’s too intimidating to talk directly to them, talk to their dogs. Pat their heads. Tell their owners how beautiful their animals are. What these kids respond to, more than anything, is to be talked to, not talked about. They get enough misrepresentation already; they need the opportunity to represent themselves, and to have someone actually listen.

I’ll end with an admission: I’ve never been the mother of a teenager. And I can’t pretend to know how nightmarish it must be to watch your kid, the most important person in your life, turn into a monster who hurts you and herself.  But I do know that hurting her back, making her feel some of the pain she inflicted on you, isn’t going to turn her back into your little angel or suddenly make her develop a sense of empathy.  And I’d hate to think that parents all over the country will read “Imperfect Birds” and tell themselves those comforting lies—those kids aren’t really homeless; wilderness programs aren’t really that bad, you just have to do your research and find the right one; it’s okay to read your kid’s diary; etc., etc.—that make the case files at HYA grow longer, fatter, and more discouraging.

*
Suzanne Rivecca will be a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in Fall, 2010. Her short story collection, Death is Not an Option (W.W. Norton) is coming out in July 2010.
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N.B.: Recommended Reading

05/01/2010

The Owls asked some thoughtful people to suggest a favorite book of 2009 as a series of notes toward a recommended reading list. This was not intended as any sort of pretend ranking system. The responses received are below, in no particular order. Most memorable for me was Iain Sinclair’s Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire, published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton. This curio contains decades of research about the London borough of Hackney, told in a series of chapters blending peculiar travels, sometimes street by street, with notes on culture, historical wormholes, and personal essays. (Read an extract here.) –JMT.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG)

I read “The Fish” to anyone who has thirty seconds to listen.

–Stephanie Soileau

Fordlandia
By Greg Grandin (Metropolitan Books)

Given the near-collapse of industrial capitalism over the past year, few analyses of the current crisis had as much resonance as this historical exploration of Henry Ford’s attempt at cornering the rubber market and recreating Main Street USA in the heart of the Amazon. A colossal failure, now swallowed by the jungle, that puts our current folly in perspective.

–Matthew Power

Bad Science
By Ben Goldacre (HarperPerennial)

It gives a satisfying answer to one of the most important questions of our time: if science is so great, why, every week, do we get conflicting advice about what we should eat from scientists?

–S. Abbas Raza

Hovering at a Low Altitude:
The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (W.W. Norton)

The legendary Israeli poet and peace activist, who wrote with tremendous naturalness and tenderness in Hebrew going back to the deepest layers of the language, is well served by two brilliant translators. In their prefatory remarks, Bloch and Kronfeld tell of a translation conference with the poet. They are wavering between two English words to render the Hebrew, and ask Ravikovitch which one is better. “So much is lost, either way,” the poet replies. Sure it is, in any translation — but less this time.

–Elatia Harris

The Cradle
By Patrick Somerville (Little, Brown)

My favorite novel of the year . Earlier this year I had the pleasure of publishing a Somerville short story in American Short Fiction. After reading just the first page of that story, I knew I wanted to read everything that Somerville would ever write. The Cradle is beautifully written, wise, heartbreaking, and un-put-downable. Who could ask for more than that?

–Stacey Swann

Black Postcards: A Memoir
By Dean Wareham (Penguin)

Wareham captures the ambivalence, emptiness and simple pleasures that make up a large percentage of the life of a small-time touring musician accurately and poignantly. In terms of music memoirs I’ve read this one is closest to my experience as a micro-time indie rock musician straddling the period between the industry’s feast and famine years (late 90s vs. current day).

–Kid Millions (read his letter on not-so-great books here).

Infinite Beginnings
By Lucyna Prostko (Bright Hill Press)

The endurance of the character of Paulina from this book of poems has haunted me for months.

–Nellie Bridge

My Abandonment
By Peter Rock (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

A beautiful and haunting novel about a young girl living off the grid.

–Skip Horack

Reconsidering Happiness
By Sherrie Flick (University of Nebraska Press).

Beautiful evocation of landscape and of the way that people’s lives intersect across time and space. Best novel set in a bakery, ever.

–Emily Mitchell

Please
By Jericho Brown (New Issues)

Technically this is a late 2008 book. Power, Pause, Repeat, Stop: you can find the section titles of Jericho Brown’s debut book of poems, Please, on your stereo, if you’ve still got one; lyrical, raw love poems, in the best tradition of the hit single, Brown covers the dial from Diana Ross to Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye to Donny Hathaway.

–Keith Ekiss

*

Notes Received

It’s not a book from this year, nor a book I’ve been meaning to read.  And I have never liked the idea of favorites; even now, hearing an adult ask a child to name a “favorite color,” I am outraged.  How stupid. But it is such an odd and rare thing to stumble by accident into a novel, and find it surprising, that I respond in the not-odd, not-rare manner, wishing to wave it around on the subway, yelling “This book happened!” This book this time is WINKIE, by Clifford Chase.  This is a novel about a teddy bear.  This teddy bear, among other things, is captured and tried as a terrorist.  This is an impossible book to write, but it was written, and it made me feel any number of things, some forgotten, some never felt before. Right now, it is my favorite color.
–Daupo

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Last month I was at dinner with a couple of friends and remembered a story about a horse, a town, and a collapsed tunnel once part of the Underground Railroad. I couldn’t place it; the story didn’t feel like part of anything I’d read but more like something a good friend whispered in my ear. I remembered, days later: Gilead. Of course. When I write poems or nonfiction about myself, I’m always a couple years behind.  The same is often true of reading. This year I read Marilynn Robinson’s novel Gilead, more than five years after it was first published. I read it and then read it again. By a voice so generous and prose so graceful, I felt humbled at the same time I was reminded why I read stories at all. I am late, I know, and it’s hard to describe how a novel so small in narrative scope feels so large in meaning, or why I think about the events in the book not as words on the page but as felt experiences.
–Joshua Rivkin

*

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Open this book to any page and you’ll find mesmerizing writing, such as:

I had no idea with whom I was speaking, but I was welling up with unarticulated emotion, emotion preceding any thought, and I saw images—thin wales of corduroy, hairs of an ink brush, bruisy vein on a foot, a yellow cardigan, archipelagoed tea leaves, smudged newsprint, a pulley, the tendon of a neck—and the word that rose to the surface was ‘Rema.’

‘I miss you,’ emerged from my mouth unintentionally, before I could think or plan or be wise in any way; it’s ridiculous, to say I miss you to someone when you don’t know who she is. ‘Where are you?’

‘Leo, I’m at our apartment but where are you?’

Her words collapsed me into a smaller number of selves, a knowable number, an unpleasant dinner party.

The narrator is a psychiatrist suffering from Capgras Syndrome, a condition which makes him believe his beloved wife Rema has been replaced by an imposter. This is a terrific book for anyone who enjoys reading about the brain and its many functions and malfunctions. The narrator’s intelligence and affliction serve to make emotion and the uncertainty of human connections exquisitely clear.
–Rita Mae Reese

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Here’s my Owls top ten books of 2009 list. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that not all of these books were printed in 2009. What I offer here is The Best Books I Read in 2009 list, for what it’s worth:

The Floating Bridge, David Shumate (prose poems)
Azorno, Inger Christensen (novella)
The Poetry of Rilke, Edward Snow, trans. (poetry)
You, Frank Stanford (poetry)
Dark Things, Novica Tadic, Charles Simic, trans. (poetry)
Evil Corn, Adrian C. Louis (poetry)
The Sadness of Days, Luis Omar Salinas (poetry)
Seven Nights, Jorge Luis Borges (essays)
Reaching out to the World, Robert Bly (prose poems)
Casual Ties, David Wevill (prose poems)

–Michael McGriff