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The Meaning of Michelle

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My response to the tornado of events precipitated by the Donald Trump administration has been one of occasional action and full-fledged nostalgia.

On the morning of inauguration day, I changed my Facebook cover photo to a picture of my friend Allison and me on a crowded, neon-lit Michigan Avenue the night Barack Obama was elected. We were wearing Yes We Can Change shirts featuring a tight-lipped, determined Barack Obama, and we held each other with glowing, teethy smiles.

I re-watched YouTube videos of Barack Obama casually chuckling at the potential reality of Donald Trump becoming president, when asked on CBSN one year ago. I indulged in a second viewing of President Obama roasting Donald Trump at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I pinned images of Michelle in glamorous, curve-hugging, shoulder-draping gowns at state dinners. 

Then I called and tweeted some congress people, donated some money to the ACLU, patted myself on the back, and visited Amazon to order The Meaning of Michelle, a series of personal essays about Michelle Obama’s legacy.

The first essay I read was “She Loves Herself When She Is Laughing: Michelle Obama, Taking Down a Stereotype and Co-Creating a Presidency,” by Rebecca Carroll. Having just finished Their Eyes Were Watching God with my American Lit class, I was curious about the comparison Carroll makes between Obama and Zora Neale Hurston.

Carroll writes that Michelle is the “embodiment of what black American writer Zora Neale Hurston meant when she wrote: ‘I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.’” I think what she means is that both Michelle and Zora are/were both resolutely themselves in the public eye, which, as Carroll writes, was “no small thing for a Black woman in the 1930s, and sadly… no small thing for a Black woman in the 2000s either.” Carroll argues that Barack Obama, struggling to find his place as a biracial black man with an unconventional upbringing, was attracted to Michelle for the very reason that she was grounded in her blackness, and fully immersed in it. Carroll identifies with the former President’s longing for this grounding partner, growing up as a “Black adoptee in a white family.”

In “Lady O and King Bey,” Brittney Cooper writes of the “mutual girl crush that Michelle Obama and Beyoncé share.” Cooper points that Michelle, as First Lady, had an opportunity to reclaim something that black women are often denied:

“In a world in which Black women were always treated as women but never as ladies, a Black woman becoming the icon of American ladyhood is a triumph of the hopes and dreams of all those race ladies of old.”

Given the significance of Michelle Obama’s ladyhood, her public admiration of Beyoncé implies that she also lays claim to another version of black womanhood, one characterized by body confidence and sex appeal, and also a taking of pleasure in “flouting the rules of social propriety.”

For example, when Beyoncé performed “Formation” for the 2016 Super Bowl, critiquing “anti-Black state violence” and wearing costumes with a sartorial nod to the Black Panther Movement, Michelle told Gayle King in an interview, “’I care deeply about the Halftime Show. I hope Beyoncé likes what I have on’ [She] was dressed in a black blouse with black slacks.”

Super Bowl aside, I can imagine there have been many times Michelle may have wanted to channel Beyoncé in “flouting the rules of social propriety.” For example, when “Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin remarked that Michelle Obama had a ‘big butt,’ and thus no business leading the Let’s Move! Campaign,” as Cooper writes. In explaining Michelle Obama’s need for Beyoncé, Cooper writes that

“sometimes ratchet is a more appropriate register in which to check your haters than respectability will ever be. But overtly ratchet Mrs. Obama simply cannot be. Beyoncé can be as ratchet as she wants to be though, and in this, I think the First Lady finds a place to let her hair down and put her middle fingers up.”

According to Cooper, the friendship between Michelle Obama and Beyoncé is both remarkable and “regular as rain,” or rather, “reign.” Their friendship is a testament to the fact that:

“The U.S. is no nation for Black women. It is too limited a container for the magic we bring. And because the American national imaginary is built on the most limited and stingy ideas about who Black women get to be, when we are called to navigate the terrain of racial representation as public figures, many sisters return to the most basic truth we have – we need each other to survive.”

In “Becoming the Wife,” Cathi Hanauer identifies with Michelle’s willingness to set aside a prestigious career to become “Mom-in-Chief.” When Hanauer met her husband, she was an established writer looking to do “something more meaningful” by applying to an MFA program. Her would-be husband was a struggling writer working odd jobs as a ski instructor and a janitor. He eventually became the editor of The New York Times’s Modern Love column, a wild success, as Hanauer gradually increased her role as primary parent and homemaker.

In Michelle Obama’s case, as is widely known, she was Barack Obama’s mentor before she became his helpmate. After she married Obama in 1992, they lived “separate professional lives”… up to a point. As Hanauer writes,

“What did change, work-wise, for Michelle – as it did for me, and as it does for so many college-educated women, particularly once children are involved – is that we both reached a point in our lives and marriages when we agreed to become… The Wife – as our husbands took on the more important and lucrative work role. We did this for the greater good of our marriages, our families, and in Michelle’s case, the world; and maybe even, as mothers, for ourselves. Michelle became Mrs. President. And I became Mrs. Modern Love.”

There’s something refreshingly real about the way that Hanauer frames the choice to become the wife, the helpmate once children enter the picture – that it’s a choice borne out of practicality, human limitations, a humility in not demanding oneself to be everything to everybody. This willingness to inhabit a prescribed role, and a traditional, non-glamorous one at that, seems like a matter of maturing for the younger versions of Michelle and Cathi, embarking solo on their careers with Plans – at once laser-sharp and limitless.

When I mentioned this essay to my husband, he said that the notion of success, in his view, has evolved from sacrifice to achievement. We used to judge women, and to an extent, men, by how much they had sacrificed for others, whereas we judge them now by their individual solo accomplishments. I think one of the reasons Michelle Obama is so popular is precisely owing to the amount and quality of her sacrifice, for her children, for her husband, for her willingness to make her motherhood and wifehood public, assuming a role that seems both demanding and tedious. This feeling of admiration and gratitude doesn’t confer as easily onto Barack Obama, as his public sacrifices seem tied up with his personal ambitions.

And then, in spite of our admiration, there’s a collective instinct to see Michelle pursue her ambitions, full-force. Ironically, perhaps, this is how Hanauer ends her laudatory essay on becoming the wife:

“I can’t wait to see what she does next. And what she does after that, when her children are grown and she can focus with far fewer distractions on her career. She has said she’ll never run for president herself. To that, I say: Never say never, Michelle. Let’s just see where we all are a decade from now.”

Handmaid’s Tale Project

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Last year my students read The Handmaid’s Tale in American Lit. I’m reworking my unit this year to really emphasize the relationship between Atwood’s dystopian world and real-word political, religious, and human rights issues throughout history and in contemporary societies. It’s easy to get caught up in the strangeness of the story itself — but Atwood is directing her story toward real issues we face. We read The Handmaid’s Tale following The Crucible, so it makes for an interesting transition regarding themes of women and power and the impact of religion on politics. With increased access to chromebooks in my classroom this year, I’m hoping that this final project — a PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation will give my students a chance to practice real-world skills and conduct meaningful research.

Final Project, The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Goal: Connect the surreal, dystopian world of Gilead to real issues faced by individuals and societies today or in the past.
  • Role: American Lit teacher.
  • Audience: Members of your American Lit class.
  • Situation: An opportunity to share the world of The Handmaid’s Taleand more importantly, its emphasis on satire and social commentary, with your class
  • Product: An interactive PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation that you will present in a five minute presentation

Process

Pick one of “Atwood’s Targets” (satire & social commentary points) to focus on:

  • “Rapid change into extraordinary brutality from an apparently civilized society”
  • A superficial and misleading focus on “family values” in oppressive societies
  • A focus on indoctrinating the young in repressive regimes
  • To oppress groups, oppressive leaders first dehumanize them
  • Books and literacy were seen as threats in oppressive societies
  • Oppression of women — e.g., requirements to be fully covered, limitations on their education
  • Objectification of women, women = their bodies, women’s bodies are their most important asset
  • Government through fear — brutal punishments to intimidate the population
  • Rigid gender roles — each gender serves a specific, prescribed function in society
  • The evils of slavery

Review your copy of The Handmaid’s Tale and find two instances of this “target” being examined, explored, satirized 

Research governments or religions that contain elements of oppression or face human rights challenges (either historical or contemporary) and take notes on how this government or religion exhibits your chosen “target.” Check out these resources to get a feel for the types of sources you should be consulting:

 Review these resources for how to create a high quality, interactive PowerPoint. 

Review PowerPoint or Google Slide software so you know what you’re doing, tech-wise. 

Create your PowerPoint (or Google Slide) presentation connecting your research to The Handmaid’s Tale. Cite your sources. 

Script the verbal part of your presentation and rehearse. 

RUBRIC
Total Possible Points =160

Criteria A – 36-40 pts B – 32-35 pts C – 28-31 pts D – 24-27 pts F – 23 pts or below

Explanation of Ideas & Information

Regularly builds in audience interaction

Presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, audience can easily follow the line of reasoning

 

Does not read off the slide and is well-rehearsed but not scripted in delivery

 

Conveys passion for ideas and show

Builds in audience interaction at some points

Mostly presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, audience can follow the line of reasoning

 

Does not read off the slide and is rehearsed in delivery

 

Conveys passion for ideas and show

 

Rarely builds in audience interaction

May not present information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically, but audience can generally follow the line of reasoning

Mostly does not read off the slide and is mostly rehearsed in delivery

 

Conveys some passion for ideas and show

Does not build in audience interaction

 

Presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence in a way that is confusing and/or incoherent; audience struggles to follow the line of reasoning

May read off the slide frequently; delivery is unrehearsed or overly scripted

 

Conveys minimal passion for ideas and show

Builds in no audience interaction

 

Sloppily presents information, findings, arguments, and supporting evidence; audience can’t follow the line of reasoning

 

Reads off the slide frequently; delivery is unrehearsed or overly scripted

 

Does not convey passion for ideas and show

Organization

Meets all requirements for what should be included in the presentation

Has a clear and interesting introduction and conclusion

 

Organizes time well; no part of the presentation is too short or too long

Meets all requirements for what should be included in the presentation

Has a clear introduction and conclusion

 

Mostly organizes time well; for the most part, no part of the presentation is too short or long

Meets most requirements for what should be included in the presentation and has an introduction and conclusion

 

Some parts of the presentation may be too short or too long

Meets some requirements for what should be included in the presentation but many elements are missing

 

Parts of the presentation are too long or too short

Does not meet requirements for what should be included in the presentation

 

The presentation is disorganized; time is not used effectively

Eyes, Body, & Voice

Keeps eye contact with audience most of the time; only glances at notes or aides

 

Uses natural gestures and movements

 

Looks poised and confident

 

Speaks clearly, not too quickly or slowly

 

Speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear; changes tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Rarely uses filler words

 

Adapts speech for the context and task, demonstrating command of formal English when appropriate

Keeps eye contact with audience most of the time; only glances at notes or aides

 

Mostly uses natural gestures and movements

 

Mostly looks poised and confident

 

Mostly speaks clearly, not too quickly or slowly

 

Mostly speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear; may change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Uses filler words occasionally

 

Demonstrates some command of formal English when appropriate

Keeps eye contact with audience some of the time; may look too closely at notes or aides

 

May use unnatural gestures and movements

 

May not look poised or confident

 

May speak too quickly or too slowly at points

 

May not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; may not change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

May use filler words often

 

Demonstrates some command of formal English when appropriate

May struggle to keep eye contact; may look too closely at notes or aides

 

Uses unnatural gestures and movements

 

May not look poised or confident

 

Speaks too quickly or too slowly at points

 

Does not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; does not change tone and pace to maintain interest

 

Uses filler words often

 

Doesn’t demonstrate command of formal English when appropriate

Does not make eye contact; looks too closely at notes or aides

 

Uses unnatural gestures and movements

 

Is not poised or confident

 

Speaks too quickly or too slowly at points

 

Does not speak loudly enough for everyone to hear; does not change tone and pace to maintain interest

Use filler words

 

Doesn’t demonstrate command of formal English when appropriate

PowerPoint

PowerPoint follows all guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video — and effectively contributes to audience engagement and understanding

 

Demonstrates thorough research; sources are cited

PowerPoint mostly follows all guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video – and contributes to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates some thorough resources; sources are cited

PowerPoint follows some guidelines in assignment instructions – simple, readable, incorporates pictures or video – and somewhat contributes to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates research; not all sources may be cited

PowerPoint is missing several important guidelines in assignment instructions – struggles to contribute to audience engagement and understanding

Demonstrates minimal research; not all sources may be cited

PowerPoint is missing most guidelines in assignment instructions – does not contribute to audience engagement and understanding

Lacking in research quality and citation of sources

Daring Greatly

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Author and self-proclaimed “shame and vulnerability” researcher Brené Brown keeps resurfacing in my life in different ways. First, I reconnected with an old childhood friend and we had a surprisingly honest, vulnerable conversation right off the bat. After bonding over some of the different, mutually deep struggles of our twenties, my friend referred me to her TED Talk about how vulnerability is the means to meaningful human connection, something to be owned and cultivated.

Then I attended a small group meeting of teachers about the subject of “cultural competence,” education jargon for how well teachers build relationships with students from diverse cultural backgrounds. We were asked to bring resources that impact our thinking on this topic, and specifically on the topic of how we show love for our students and how well that love is received. The Brené Brown TED Talk came  up again, and a co-worker of mine recommended her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong.

I just finished Daring Greatly. Here are a couple of thoughts that come to mind:

Brown frequently uses the term “scarcity culture,” referring to the myriad ways in which society tells us that we aren’t enough as we are. I immediately think of Facebook — our frenzied, frequent status updates crying out, “I am so great!!” can seem like a desperate effort to outrun the notion that, really, we’re not enough. Brown also makes the point that for women in this so-called “scarcity culture,” it’s not enough to be small and pretty, maternal, “nice,” but it’s important to make it all look easy and effortless. If you show your struggle to meet these criteria, you’re opening yourself up to society’s critical eye. How convenient it is that we have Facebook pages we can curate to make all these hard-won accomplishments look like the natural unfolding of our lives… Oy vey…

Brown makes a point of distinguishing between the ways that women and men experience shame, and the hot points of shame for women are predictable and familiar, heavily focused on body size, appearance and mothering as I alluded to before. When Brown points out that shame around mothering applies to all women, including those who aren’t mothers, I want to shout, “Amen!”

When it comes to men, Brown calls out women on the fact that we’re constantly asking men to be vulnerable and open emotionally, but when they’re really, truly vulnerable, when they really need our help, women sometimes recoil. It turns women off, even disgusts them a little bit.

She also hits on numbing behaviors, be it emotional eating or compulsive exercising or that daily 5:00 pm cocktail. Eliminating numbing behaviors fits into another Brené Brown catchphrase, “wholehearted living.” She says that numbing the pain equals numbing the joy, and that the those of us who successfully live “wholeheartedly” instead of numbing our pain are those of us who set clear boundaries and set up our lives for balance, rather than overextending ourselves and using grit or willpower or whatever you want to call it to “manage” the imbalance that comes with an overworked, spiritually underfed existence.

But back to the conversation about teaching and parenting, giving and receiving love: One of the best kernels of wisdom Brown offers is that the best way to be a good parent, or a good teacher, isn’t necessarily to know a lot about parenting or teaching, but to live wholeheartedly yourself, as an adult. Now that’s a tall order…and one that requires vulnerability.

When I think about some of the pivotal moments in which I have earned the respect of my teenage students, I see a pattern of vulnerability on my part, a willingness to open myself up to their feelings and criticisms. When Chandler told me, “You’re one of the few teachers I have who apologizes when they’ve made a mistake.” Or earlier last year, when I unwittingly pushed a student to write about some of the personal struggles she had shared with me, and then I broke down crying (privately) when she told me that my actions made her feel uncomfortable and betrayed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I do not believe my tears were not interpreted by this student as a sign of weakness, but as sincere regret, and I think my tears made my breach of her trust a non-issue because she could see that I took her seriously.

As with parenting, there is certainly competition and blaming and shaming in teaching — right and wrong approaches, teachers who reached a “difficult” student that others didn’t, not to mention test scores. Brown’s advice to parents could also be applied to teachers: try not to criticize another person’s teaching or parenting style if it’s different from your own (if you’re a peer) — what matters is that, as teachers and parents, we address and engage with the challenges and issues our children face.

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” Part Two

“An artist seizes the passing moments that many of us forget, worries them through a whirl of sensitivity and sensibility, and elevates them into lasting artistic statements.” — Michelle Mercer

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)A few weeks ago I shared my obsession with Joni Mitchell after discovering music critic Michelle Mercer’s “Will You Take Me As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period,” a brief analysis of the many aesthetic and philosophical approaches that make Joni’s music strike such an original chord with her devoted fans. Part history, part criticism, part biographical portrait, the book is a somewhat rambling and sprawling portrait of Mitchell around the making of Blue and subsequent albums For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira. The organization of Mercer’s chapters often seems loose, even cobbled together, pulling together asides from her interviews with the singer-songwriter and bouncing back and forth from an array of tangential topics, but the bottom-line is that any bonafide Joni fan will delight in the specificity of Mercer’s praise for Joni’s music, finding a voice for an avid listener’s many unarticulated impressions. The last three chapters explore Joni’s stylistic evolution following Blue, the ways in which this defining work led her in new directions. Here’s a brief summary:

As mentioned in my previous post, Joni was very conflicted about her reputation as a “confessional” songwriter — she wanted her songs to be universal, to embody the experience of the listener, rendering references to specific events and people in her own life irrelevant. At the same time, the deep mining of self, the intense self-exposure that made Blue so aching and intimate, is one of Joni’s signature strengths as an artist. In “Beyond Personal Songwriting,” Mercer explores this defining feature of Mitchell’s sensibility and the forces that led her to move beyond it.

According to Mercer, one factor was that the up-and-coming songwriters of the 1970s, unlike Dylan, Mitchell, and Young in the 1960s, did not have the lyrical sophistication to transform autobiography into complex, universal truths. She writes that “the difference between earlier autobiographical songs and later ones is something like the difference between a piece of writing that evokes a ‘small sob in the spine of the reader,’ which is how Nabokov once described his writing aims, and a journal entry that vents feelings.” Another factor was the fading away of the 1960s counterculture — the previous crop of singer-songwriters implicated society in their exploration of personal struggles, and as this wave of disillusionment fell away, so did the muscle of their confessions.

So Joni responded in a couple of ways: she invented characters, rendering new songs more like dramatic monologues, and she recast her music in the rich sounds of world music. In the mid 1970s Joni recruited the band the L.A. Express for her promotional tour of Court and Spark, lending the album a new feeling of theatricality and artifice, in contrast to the idea of an exposed, vulnerable solo artist alongside her instrument, mining nothing more than her personal experience. The presence of a band also satisfied her new leanings toward more expansive, complex arrangements.

Court and Spark marked a radical departure from Blue — it was Joni’s first foray into full jazz arrangements, in addition to being chock full of characters, from music  mogul in “Free Man in Paris” to schizophrenic in “Twisted.” Her new jazz sound was casual, conversational, with a less angst-ridden orientation to romance. Mercer points out that the autobiographical still played a major role, though, such as with the title track, “Court and Spark,” based on Mitchell’s encounter with a crazy fan. Joni claims not to be influenced by the 1950s Beat poets, but according to Mercer, writers like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg paved the way for this autobiographical approach, in which soul-searching produced the substance of art and writers sought to transcribe their consciousness onto the page as purely and transparently as possible.

“It never has been easy whether you do or do not resign, whether you travel the breadth of extremities or stick to some straighter line” — “Hejira,” Joni Mitchell

In “Breadth of Extremities,” Mercer charts the making of the album Hejira, among other pursuits, as well as Mitchell’s continued exploration of a familiar theme: the contrast between love and freedom, coming to terms with her own uprootedness. This is reflected in the album title, the word “hejira” coming from the arabic Hijra, referring to Muhammed’s migration to Medina. In other words, it’s a running away to find wisdom and enlightenment, versus a cowardly running away, or an attempt to escape. For example, in the song “Amelia” Joni conflates her desire for the open road, the inevitability with which she eventually leaves her lovers, to Amelia Earhart’s skyward journey, repeating “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” to mean, in Mercer’s reading, that just as Earhart “was swallowed by the sky,” Joni “spent [her] whole life in clouds at icy altitude” and it’s a false alarm to think that either will return home, literally or figuratively. Once again, a failed romance served as Joni’s muse — this time, her love affair with jazz drummer John Guerin.

Prior to Hejira, Joni experienced some marked extremes, beginning with a 1975 tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, and Ronee Blakely. This drug and alcohol filled “circus” is contrasted with Joni’s encounter with Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa in Boulder, Colorado. After their meeting in which he advised her to “just quit analyzing,” Mitchell claims to have “‘had no sense of ‘I’ or me, no self-consciousness for three days.'” As Mercer frames it, the writing of the album Hejira represents a sort of detox from the Rolling Thunder tour, Joni’s attempt to write herself back into the state of meditative contentment that Trungpa led her to.

Then Mercer embarks on a brief analysis of Hejira. She writes that Mitchell’s analysis of romantic love on the album reflects a “new distance…from her desires,” with songs like “A Strange Boy” as compared to ones like “All I Want” on Blue, speculating that this newfound distance is a “pervasive if subtle sign of Trungpa’s influence.” The instrumentation on Hejira is much thinner than Mitchell’s foray into lush jazz with Court and Spark, and the songs invoked a sense of wandering by mixing different keys and featuring the “unruly” (Joni’s word) bass lines of jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. The song “Refuge of the Roads” directly references Joni’s encounter with Trungpa — in the first line, “I met a friend of spirit” — and her plunge back into the evaluative, analytical, self-critical melancholy of an artist, leaving Trungpa for “the refuge of the roads.” Mercer writes that Hejira is “no less honest and hyper-expressive” than Blue, but “Mitchell suffered no crisis of self-exposure” because there is an overriding sense of self-acceptance, of making peace with the unresolved nature of love and romance. Mercer argues that this greater self-acceptance in her mid-thirties allowed Joni to focus outward on future albums like Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, outward toward social commentary and musical experimentation.

Mercer’s last chapter, entitled “Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves,” seeks to dispel the myth of the bitter, disparaging crank that is often perpetuated by media interviews. Instead, Mercer explores Mitchell’s “lust for life” by compiling a simple list of her praise as a refreshing, interesting window into the artist’s mind, gathered from their interviews together and a few outside sources. To close out this rambling entry, here are some of my favorite “likes”:

  • “‘[Cigarettes are] a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.'”
  • “‘I used to look to Dylan or Neil [Young] for songwriting inspiration but now, there’s no one really cutting it, so you gotta turn to the short story tellers.”
  • “‘[Former Black Panthers] are my best audience. The ‘Joni Mitchell, she don’t lie’ school.'”

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” and Other Joni Musings

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)“No, but are you really listening?” This is the line I repeatedly confront my husband with when listening to Joni Mitchell. I have yet to convert him, and until that fateful day, I’ll be a broken record. I knew that I had found a kindred spirit in Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period upon reading that the author used Mitchell as a litmus test for would-be boyfriends, confessing, “When a guy seemed like a decent prospect, there was one good way to find out.” She adds, “You didn’t play Join Mitchell for girlfriends… I already knew that they got it,” but “a soulmate would ear the ingenuity of Joni’s chords, the novelty of her song structure…” Judging by this standard, my otherwise wonderful husband is not soulmate material — Joni doesn’t inspire reverence in him so much as chuckles and gentle mockery (can you believe the gall! To chuckle…) For example, in the admittedly playful but equally brilliant “All I Want,” he gets such a kick out out of the line “I want to shampoo you” that he likes to convert the following one, “I want to renew you…” into “I want to run through you…” He also occasionally chicken balks when I’m putting on an impromptu concert from the revered Joni canon, but that’s another story…

For the longest time, I thought my singing voice was the problem. I kept saying, “You’d like Joni better if if you listened to her sing her own songs, rather than my flawed imitations,” but he’s yet to have the aha moment, you know, when he comes to his senses and properly worships the ground she walks on. I do give him credit for nabbing me a copy of Will You Take Me As I Am from our local library, and we shared a laugh over the fact that the “you’re not really listening!” sentiment seems to be something of a phenomenon. Then there’s Mercer’s observation that women “just get” Joni, consistent with my experience — I’m thinking of my friend Allison, and my mom, whose Ladies of the Canyon and Court and Spark CDs first prompted my obsession — and men? Well, the noncommittal ones just need to listen, in case I haven’t made that clear.

I discovered Joni Mitchell relatively late, I guess — in college. I’m embarrassed to say that as an adolescent I never had a love affair with any particular band, or “singer-songwriter,” excluding some modest enthusiasm for The Cranberries 🙂 I’ve always tended towards female singers — at the time I was probably fond of Lauryn Hill, Dido, Sara Mclachlan, you get the picture — and then of course I was also immersed in the campy, self-referential, albeit musically rich world of musical theatre, which probably crowded out space in my soul for more earnest, angsty plungings into sophisticated artists. Nothing in my middle or high school years compared to the technically agile, lyrically pointed and precise, vocally pure music of Joni Mitchell, which only became more rewarding as I discovered more albums, her style always evolving, becoming more and more expansive. For all intents and purposes, though, I think college still counts as adolescence, at least for my innocent, rather late-blooming development, and so I was probably bowled over by her lyrics in the singular, intense way of a pimply teenager. In her book Mercer states that according to scientific studies, the music we are exposed to in our adolescence hits us the deepest. I find this fact at once utterly fascinating and entirely sensible — it makes sense like the notion that the first love is the deepest, but it’s fascinating to imagine that the half-formed synapses and emotional/hormonal turmoil of adolescence is also the perfect storm for receptivity to music.

Mercer is a music critic for such media outlets as NPRThe New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and DownBeat. She originally interviewed Joni for her biography of Wayne Shorter, and many of their conversations are included in Will You Take Me As I Am. Mercer writes as a fan, but “without a scintilla of fanzine gush,” as described by reviewer Phillip Lopate. In the book she writes that what inspired her to take on the project was her immense gratitude for Mitchell’s songs, and a feeling — shared by Joni herself — that despite the awards and critical acclaim, there is a lack of critical analysis breaking down what Mercer calls “the hybrid force of her words and music.” The book is a huge pleasure for fellow Joni fans, allowing us to revisit our own gratitude for her work and investigate the source of our immense pleasure in it, and — no small thing — providing us with extra ammo the next time we need to persuade a certain special someone of the genius that he’s missing out on 🙂 I’m only halfway through, but here are some points I’ve found noteworthy so far:

The Personal Is Universal

  • Much is made out of Mitchell’s dislike for the term “confessional” as it is often ascribed to her deeply personal and heartfelt songwriting style. Despite the fact that Mitchell is gifted with a profound receptivity to her environment and to the people around her, falling in love multiple times and drawing artistic inspiration from her many loves, she chafes at the word “confess,” as if the songs were more about her and the specificity of her experience than artificial renderings of characters, speaking to what is universal about the human experience. Blue is known to be one of her most heart wrenchingly personal albums, as well as one of her most artistically coherent, elevated ones. According to Mitchell, when she played “All I Want” for some songwriter friends, Kris Kristofferson’s famous response was, “Jesus, Joni, save something for yourself.” Mercer argues that Joni’s willingness to put so much of herself in her music, to write so purely from the heart while putting out music that is so formidable from a technical and artistic standpoint, is exactly what makes her music so universally beloved, almost a “religious experience” for listeners. As Mercer writes, her music tends to feels like a unique experience to each listener. As Mitchell puts it, “The people who get the most out of my music see themselves in it.”

Linking Emotions and Artistry

  • One of the most impressive aspects of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which emotion and heartfelt expression underpins every musical choice, and — here’s the key — makes the music better. As Mercer puts it, Mitchell has a reputation for being untutored, for “instinctively laying out feelings on a record…” For a great many of us, this approach may lead to amateur, self-indulgent ramblings, but in her case, even though raw emotion is driving the music, because emotion is driving the music, the “aesthetic rigor” of her music is strengthened. (Mercer devotes an entire section to Mitchell’s use of open tunings on the guitar, freeing her up to experiment with unusual intervals… I have a book of her music for piano, and the sharps and flats are through the roof; the open tunings thing explains that.) “How many artists would kill to say,” Mercer writes, “that they created new chord progressions and structures from a place of emotional inspiration, but writing from the heart made Joni’s music more technically and aesthetically intricate, complex surprising…” On a side note, in a college course I took with director Mary Zimmerman, I remember her once saying that to her, the creative process always feels like a process of anthropology, of uncovering, digging, getting to the heart of things, rather than building from the ground up. If this is how art-making should be, then Joni consistently lives up to the ideal, something to marvel at.

Lyrics, Not Poetry

  • Another impressive, and signature aspect of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which the lyrics and music are connected. A testament to this is that reading Mitchell’s lyrics on the page, they fall short of poetry. But listening to her lyrics sung, they sound poetic. Mercer gives an example in the song “A Case of You,” in which the lyric reads, “I am frightened of the devil and I’m drawn to those ones who ain’t…afraid…” The asymmetry of the word “afraid” that follows the rhyming word, “ain’t” (rhymes with “I am lonely painter/I live in a box of paints”)   hints at the boldness and daring possessed by those who “ain’t afraid.” A criteria, perhaps, for all good lyrics, Mitchell’s lyrics are meant to be sung, and in setting them to music, she achieves something worthy of a poet.

Confessions that Run Deep

  • In the chapter, “In The Manner of the Ancients,” Mercer charts some of Mitchell’s influences, finding historical continuity in Mitchell’s impulses as a songwriter. She starts with a literal link: leading up to Blue, Mitchell spent time on the hippie expat island of Matala, Crete, in no uncertain terms “on a lonely road…traveling/traveling/traveling,” undeniably “looking for something…” Mitchell characterizes this point in her career as suffocatingly “self-referential”; she was seeking new experiences beyond the music industry and looking to shake off her image as an “angelic folk maiden.” So she headed to what at the time was a very trendy hippie hot spot, a place that also happens to be ancient and steeped in history, for example, a stopping point for Ulysses admits his “traveling/traveling/traveling.” Leading up to Blue, Mitchell’s physical location and “place” in her career aligned itself with the odysseys of the ancients; she was traveling, adventuring, seeking, looking to know herself through the process of making art. As Mercer notes, the mandate to “know thyself” is “essential to the ancient Greek worldview.” More specifically, Mercer connects Mitchell’s quest to know herself through songwriting to St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine “comes to know himself” by “merging Augustine the protagonist and Augustine the narrator.” In a society where written works were customarily recited aloud, Augustine envisioned the lone reader as the audience for his Confessions, catering to this figure with the “profound intimacy” of “revealing a mind thinking.” I see a parallel in the scores of lone listeners who feel that their experience of Mitchell’s songs is somehow unique, existential.

Traces of Dylan

  • Mercer gives a short, appreciable summary of the relationship between Mitchell and Dylan. Allow me to share a condensed version: Both members of music royalty share a folk music heritage, rooted in Woodie Guthrie’s songs. Both singer-songwriters depart from Guthrie’s populist, social commentary oriented lyrics to scale more personal, more universal subject matter. However, Mercer points out an interesting contrast between Dylan and Mitchell’s approach to the personal/universal: Dylan’s “confessional” songs contain an air of bitterness, almost lessening the blow, whereas Joni confronts the personal with her defenses down, sheerly, from a place of vulnerability. (I think this has something to do with the difference between male/female appreciation of Joni — perhaps women identify with and find catharsis in her vulnerability, whereas this quality falls flat for some male listeners? Women find gravitas and genius in her vulnerability, whereas men (some, that is, I know there are plenty of male Joni fans) don’t know what to do with it?)

Soundscape as Landscape

  • One more piece of Mercer’s analysis to mull over is the way in which Mitchell’s music sounds like what her native Canadian prairie land looks like, and more generally, the way in which the sound of music parallels a visual landscape. Mitchell hails from Saskatchewan, Canada, a landlocked province characterized by “flatland,” “big sky,” and “wide open spaces.” Mercer quotes Mitchell on how her flatlander upbringing permeates her songs: “I’ve always thought Neil [Young] and I have carried a loping prairie walk in our music, a loping pulse… As opposed to reggae, which for me has a tree frog sound.” The “loping prairie walk” image makes me think especially of the song, “Night in the City” from Song to a Seagull. Mercer notes that the frequency of the terms “soundscape” and “landscape” in music criticism have prompted editors to ban both words entirely, and draws a more explicit connection between the two in citing landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead’s observation that both “scapes” “are nonverbal forms of communication that affect us subconsciously and profoundly.” Mercer adds that “the act of listening can feel like sculpting shapes out of the air,” that the presence of the prairie in Mitchell’s songs is both “subtle and manifest.”

So there you go — an attempt to dig my chops into some music criticism, sharing it out of gratitude for Joni. She gets better with every listen. What’s your favorite song/album? Drop me a line; we Joni fans must band together 🙂

Nora Webster

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 11.47.49 AMChristmas came a little early to my house this year. Padraic bought me the novel, Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, touting the fact that Toibin has been compared to Henry James — the author of my favorite novel, Portrait of a Lady — in his rendering of female characters. It took me about two days of intensive reading to make my way from front cover to back, and here are my reflections:

I get the Henry James comparison. While Toibin writes in a very simple, declarative style that couldn’t be less similar to James’s sprawling, intricate prose, there’s a subtlety to the narrator’s relationship to his protagonist. In Toibin’s straightforward, unapologetic observations of his central character’s thoughts and actions, we readers experience a sensation of hovering, hugging close to Nora Webster’s every move in an attentive but non-judgmental way. USA Today writes that Toibin “sneak[s] up on readers” which, in retrospect, seems true; suddenly you feel yourself rooting and looking out for Nora Webster without knowing exactly how the author manipulated your sympathies. Looking back, there’s only sentence after sentence of concise, resolute declarations to draw you into Nora’s world. I recall a similar feeling in reading James — it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the narration turns Isabel Archer into a sympathetic figure.

But I’m getting ahead of myself — Nora Webster is the story of a recently widowed middle-aged woman of Wexford, Ireland, charting her attempt to put back the pieces of her life and maintain normalcy for the sake of her four children. Nora is strikingly honest, independent, and nonconformist, and Toibin makes us privy to her consciousness as she confronts the challenges of her newfound solitude.

Nora’s relationship to her children in the aftermath of her husband’s death is decidedly unsentimental. For example, she confesses to moments of awkwardness with her young sons and struggles to know what to say to her daughter, Fiona. We, the reader, follow her far into her own thoughts while in the presence of her children, which highlights the very individual, internal process of grief that shrouds the interactions of the family.

As Nora settles into her new independence, she accesses a rebellious streak, expressing itself in her decision to join the union at work, regardless of her friendship with the boss, or her open disdain for certain proprieties while visiting her sister — it’s amusing to witness her character flirt with the possibilities for nonconformity, to see her grow into her new role as solitary mistress of her house. But there’s also a weariness about Nora — we sense the struggle it takes to make it through the days and nights, and the sense of resignation that she carries with her, reluctantly giving into the visits of neighbors or the exhortations of “Sister Thomas.”

Perhaps the most memorable, distinct aspect of the novel is that it invites us to watch Nora Webster move through her loss and come out the other side. She takes up singing lessons, finding refuge in music; she takes on house projects, knocking down the fireplace and repainting her living room, finding refuge in the rythms of housework. She purchases new clothes and loses herself in TV movies with her young sons. She returns to the same office where she worked as a young, single woman, and she vacations with her children on the strand. We witness Nora putting one foot in front of the other, and learn to appreciate her resilience. There’s an understated, muted quality to Toibin’s writing, and it’s in the precise, small, mundane steps forward that we witness Nora’s transformation from overwhelmed, grief-stricken widow to a self-possessed mother and worker.

A Few Takeaways from “Hard Choices”

Asher Isbrucker obligatory airplane wing. YYZ > YVR CC BY-NC-SA 2.0This past summer I had a week-long vacation to dive deep into Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices. It paints a broad picture of foreign policy and covers a lot of ground — literally, the whole world — which sometimes diluted the subject matter, I think. But I read on anyway. In light of all that’s written about her, I was just curious to hear Hillary Clinton tell her own story. I know that some people must be rolling their eyes at what seems a strategic start to the Democratic nomination for president, but Hillary Clinton is a politician — this is what she does — and I admire both her passion and skill. Here are a few of my general impressions:

  • Clinton’s writing exudes a sincere respect for Obama. It seems that the two were genuine collaborators. When she’s not openly expressing admiration for the president, Clinton points out their differences diplomatically — it doesn’t come across as a thinly veiled, aggressive attempt to separate herself in lieu of coming elections. It’s a decidedly non-cynical window into the way American politics works, the matter-of-factness with which Clinton transitioned into a collaborative relationship with her former rival.
  • There are instances where Clinton points out traveling to a country, or meeting a leader, or having an encounter in a particular White House Room as first lady, senator, and then secretary of state. You get a sense of the incredible layers to her life in politics, and what it must feel like to suddenly recall a moment, ten years prior, of making history, only to be making new history.
  • Clinton writes about how much she enjoyed the non-partisan nature of being secretary of state. You can feel her enthusiasm for the art of international relations as she repeatedly invokes terms like “creative diplomacy,” and tracks the huge number of miles she logged. You get the sense that she enjoyed the adventure of her position, her prerogative to meet leaders face-to-face, fronting her team abroad.
  • In general, the book exuded a positive, hopeful attitude. It’s noticeable and significant that Clinton, who is among the most informed people in the world about international affairs and global politics, takes such a practical, affirming point of view on so many topics that are widely impugned by the general public. Obviously Clinton has a vested interested in representing her own accomplishments, but then again, public servants can speak to progress that those of us on the outside wouldn’t even think to appreciate. It reminds of me something I recently read in another non-fiction work, this one about American educational policy, The Teacher Wars. Author Dana Goldstein writes that the status quo in American education, while much maligned, is in reality “concerning,” but not in dire straits. As for Clinton, some folks might criticize her optimism on some fronts — for example, she put a positive spin on the climate change conference in Copenhagen that some poorer, island nations considered a dismal failure.
  • Clinton’s humanness also shines through — in this book, she comes across as more the hardworking civil servant versus ambitious first lady or opportunistic senator. She writes about making myriad wedding planning decisions as mother of the bride to Chelsea alongside legitimately “hard choices” in the political arena, of being deeply humbled by her interactions with Burma’s female opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and of the sense of personal obligation she felt to the thousands of employees at the state department. Most importantly, she writes about the outsize effect of building and sustaining personal rapport with world leaders, citing Hamid Karzai as an example of a strong personality who could be appealed to on the basis of personal gestures. The extent of her travels and her push to Obama for face-to-face diplomacy indicates that she took a very personalized approach to the job, placing a high value on conversations between world leaders.
  • Hillary Clinton’s decisiveness, the surety and clarity of her opinions, is definitely something that comes across in her book, and it’s a noticeable contrast to Obama’s hedging since becoming president (say I as an Obama supporter). This is demonstrated in her sharp criticisms of Vladimir Putin — she’s not a fan, and there’s no sugar coating, her directness almost makes me laugh. It reminds me of those “who you gonna call” ads from the 2008 race — or at least, that’s how I vaguely remember them. As much as I love me some Barack Obama, Hillary has a swift way of sizing up a situation and articulating a precise course of action, even as she talks about “smart power” or “smart diplomacy,” aka working countries from multiple angles, for example engaging in talks on some issues while placing sanctions or playing tough on others.
  • I’m afraid this post is starting to sound like a go Hillary! ad. If you’re not keen on Hilary for President, or you find yourself more dubious than curious about her account of hard choices, I have to say, there is one other reason to shell out the bucks for the discounted hardback and get reading: each chapter is laid out according to the state of world affairs in a different region, and so it provides a sweeping overview of the balance of global powers. It’s certainly not a biography — the “hard choices” paradigm really is a refrain throughout the book, and you really get a sense of how Clinton, among others, engineers the wielding of “smart power” in a global realm of shifting alliances and competing challenges.

 

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