Thursday, July 28, 2011

Amy's Last Gift

Saturday morning, I woke up to what felt like a typical Saturday. My sis and I had declared it a "Lazy Day", the reward we both wanted for a stressful couple of weeks filled with tech rehearsals, performances, school (my sister is a full-time student and still has classes during the summer), work (my sis also has a part-time job that usually consumes her weekends), et cetera. We just wanted a day spent on the couch, watching television, and maybe eating a little less healthily than usual. (Okay, the "worst" I did was go to Wendy's and try their wild berry frosty parfait. It's not bad.) While sis slept in a little, I checked out Facebook and read about the devastating attack in Norway where a gunman essentially invaded an island retreat for young members of Norway's ruling party and opened fire, killing dozens of innocent kids. Horrifying. As I read the accounts of his attack, I felt sick and eventually had to stop reading because I was overwhelmed by the sheer terror these kids must have felt and the horrific final moments so many of them endured.

A couple hours later, I was in the kitchen and my sis yelled from the living room, "Oh my God! Amy Winehouse is dead!" We ran back to the den to get on the computer and check our reliable news sources to confirm the tweet my sis had gotten from a friend. Within moments, Facebook was cluttered with "RIP Amy" messages as well as the expected quips about rehab and her lack of desire to go there. Eventually, as the day progressed, the "RIP"s gave way to people railing against the Amy messages and wondering where the grief was for Norway.

To me, the answer seems more obvious than the typical "Americans care more about celebrities than 'real' people" argument that I sensed was behind the Facebook complaints. Amy's death is a death we can metaphorically wrap our minds around. I mean, yes, I was sad when she died and felt that momentary jolt of shock you feel whenever you hear of any death, but it wasn't all that shocking in the grand scheme of things. It's the kind of death we've experienced in the news over and over again -- a promising life and career cut short by someone's absolute inability to resist an appetite. We understand that death because we've seen it over and over again.

Norway, however, is something we can't quite understand and so it becomes easier to reject it in a sense, to shift our attention to something we can relate to. How in the world can we comprehend the depths of sickness and evil it takes to gun down innocent kids? How can we hear the tale of what those kids went through without feeling a part of our spirits just die? When I began telling my sis what had happened on that island retreat, she held up a hand a minute or so into my story, tears welling up in her eyes, and begged me to stop. She could not handle another second of imagining the horror on that island. Granted, my sis and I tend to be a little more empathetic than others, but I can't imagine that we were the only people who had such powerful reactions.

And so it's easier to grieve for Amy. We "know" her. We "get" her. We can crack jokes, we can collect our winnings from having her name in the death pool, and we can move on secure in the idea that bad things happen in a relatively predictable and even controllable way. (After all, we can think, had Amy just stuck with rehab .....) Amy's death is a part of us but yet removed from us. We can escape her fate by not, you know, being completely addicted to drugs. Norway, though, reminds us that sometimes, there is no escape. Lunatics just wake up and decide to go kill a bunch of kids and there's nothing we can do about it. No amount of racial profiling (sorry, Fox News, but he WASN'T a Muslim extremist like you wanted him to be in your initial reports) can protect us from tragedy. Our defense mechanism, then, is to push that thought away and focus on the predictable, vicarious one. The one last gift Amy could give us (outside of an album that deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest in the modern pop/rock era -- seriously, go give Back to Black a listen and tell me that album doesn't blow your mind) is that escape from the harsh realities about the depths of evil that lurk around us. It may seem cowardly to turn our eyes away from that, but it makes it possible to get out of bed a lot of mornings to think of a world full of sunshine and sad but expected celebrity deaths than crazed gunmen popping up out of nowhere.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Kindling a Flame

I've never made it a secret that I have had a lifelong affair with books. From a very young age, books fascinated me. I would badger my poor parents every night to read to me, so much so that my mother eventually read a bunch of my favorite books onto tape so that she could hit "play" and leave me to fall asleep. She also made sure that I learned to read at a very early age (again, I suspect it was to spare her the ongoing demands to read MORE, Mommy, MORE!). By the time I was in first grade, I was reading several grades above my peers. I would walk out of the library with a stack of books and finish them within days. As an adult, the affair has intensified. I honestly shudder to think how many thousands of dollars I have spent on books over the course of my life. I can't even begin to estimate how many books I own. They are hidden in just about every nook and cranny in my house. It's kind of an illness.

In the past year or so, there has been something coming between me and my great love. No, not my busy schedule. Even when I am working insanely long hours, I've always set aside the last 20 or so minutes of the day to read a little bit before I go to sleep. No, this third wheel is more of an issue than my hectic lifestyle and workaholic tendencies. The third wheel is my eyes. You see, over the past several months, I've taken note of the fact that reading has become a bit more challenging for me -- so much so that I've taken to keeping a pair of reading glasses by my bed to help ease the job a little. (I wear glasses normally, but I am nearsighted. My prescription for that does nothing to help my inability to read things close to me.) I've been putting off a trip to the eye doctor because my fear is that the diagnosis will be bifocals. I am completely at ease with turning 40, but I am totally NOT okay with wearing bifocals. Not yet.

My vision also created challenges for me at the gym. I've found that if I read while on the elliptical, I can go for a much longer time -- which is ultimately better for my body since it's getting more cardio. I don't wear my glasses when I work out, but I can't hold the book close enough to read easily while literally sweating my butt off. There's also the added hassle of trying to get the book to stay open on the little shelf-y thing. I tried reading magazines, but there was the struggle of the pages blowing in the fans that are aimed at the cardio area to keep us from dying of heat stroke. Plus, the print size was an issue. Because of the distance from my eyes to the shelf-y and the fact that I don't wear my glasses to work out, I often struggled to read. And that 45-plus minutes on the elliptical started to feel longer and longer every day. God bless little Bruiser Woods, but music just wasn't enough to keep my mind off the monotony of 45 minutes of walking in place.

And a couple weeks ago, the solution suddenly hit me. It was so obvious ... and so incredibly difficult to accept. It would involve swallowing some pride and taking back some things I'd said in the past. It would mean surrendering to the enemy.

It would mean buying a Kindle.

I spent several weeks thinking it over, weighing the pros and cons. I could fit entire libraries in my workout bag. It would fit perfectly on the elliptical. I could adjust the text size and my eyes wouldn't be an issue in my reading any more.

But then...what about the stacks of books I own that I've not read yet? After railing against how technology was killing books, I'd be a hypocrite for embracing that technology, right?

But.....libraries....whole bag!!!

Sunday, I headed to Target. I literally spent an hour roaming around the store, debating with myself whether or not to take the plunge. I walked by the Kindle case probably ten times, looking at it, thinking it over, and then I'd head over to the lamps to think about it (and ended up buying a new lamp...Target has clearly missed out on a way to increase sales. Get indecisive people in there and tell them they have to spend an hour deciding about Item A while they walk around the store. I bet I wouldn't be the only one that spent a good $50 more than intended by the time it was over!). When the hour was up, there I was heading to my car with a lamp, a new duffle bag (that I actually bought for my sister), some new moisturizer, a planner, a couple Luna Bars (I'm hooked on those bad boys!) and...a Kindle. I spent the rest of the afternoon browsing around on Amazon, trying to decide which book to buy (I decided to limit myself to a book or so at a time...and for now, I'm not allowed to take the Kindle to bed...and yes, I realize how dirty that just sounded!). I ended up spending about $15 and ended up with two books (that were both under $3 each ... which is why I bought them) as well as the complete works of Shakespeare, the complete works of Jane Austen, and a collection of Mark Twain books (including Huck Finn, which I get to teach this year).

Yesterday was my first day using the new Kindle at the gym. I felt a little like a techno-nerd as I strapped on my iPod and grabbed my Kindle and headed for the elliptical. I will admit that reading slows my pace just a touch, but the 45 minutes flew by ... so much so that I think it's about time to bump my time up to a full hour. I luckily picked a book that's relatively light and quick reading (Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan). It's a good companion to my workout.

So of course, the question is what does the Kindle do to my relationship with books? Well, so far, I've stuck to my "No Kindle in Bed" policy. I read Commencement during the day and am working my way through Chelsea Handler's My Horizontal Life (a score from the public library's spring book sale!). I still have a stack of physical books that I fully intend to read because otherwise, man, that is a lot of money out the window! I just RSVPed to attend the library's fall book sale in a couple months. And I'm going to try to stick to just downloading one book at a time for the Kindle to keep myself in check. I definitely felt a sense of this being a life altering moment when I opened the Kindle and held it in my hands for the first time, but my hope is that the Kindle can peacefully co-exist with the books in my life and that the three (or three thousand of us -- if I count each book I own individually) can live happily ever after.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Boy Who Lives

Thirteen years ago, my sister presented me with a simple birthday gift -- a book. It was a book we'd read about, heard was pretty great, but I'd not given it a ton of thought beyond that because it was clear from the things I'd read that it was a book designed for children. It was some book about a little boy wizard. I was in my late 20's, and I wasn't really sure that a book about a little boy wizard was up my alley. I'd never been big into fantasy-type novels even as a young reader, so why should I be interested now? But my sister wanted to read the book, saw an opportunity to get the book into the house (as a gift), and assured me that the books transcended age, that adults were really into these books, too.

It may seem hyperbolic to say that this one gift changed my life, but in a way, it kind of did.

Within pages of starting Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I was hooked. I sometimes think I stand as a testament to the power of those books. I was a cynical Gen-Xer with no history with any sort of fantasy series. And yet, I instantly bought into the world that JK Rowling created and fell in love with these characters. As the series went on and I became a teacher, I saw the power these books had as even the most reluctant readers found themselves clinging to Rowling's books. A kid who threw a fit when I asked him to read a three-page short story was lugging around a 500+ page Harry Potter book without blinking an eye.

The books resonate. Yes, there is an engaging story at its core, a simple good versus evil epic. But there's more to the books that I think pulled in kids and adults across genre lines like never before. There is this sort of promise made within the books -- that courage and integrity win out, that loneliness is not permanent, that intelligence empowers, that escape is possible. There is also harsh reality at play in the books. People die, good people. Trust is betrayed. Pain is suffered. But there is a sort of comfort to experience those lessons in literature, to ease kids into the idea that the world is full of possibilities, and some of those possibilities hurt ... a lot.

I envy the kids who grew up with Harry. I know that I approached the books much differently than his young fans. I was an adult. I had already learned those lessons about promise and pain. I had suffered loss and grief and had found the friends who made life so much richer. Seeing Harry suffer the pain I had already suffered and experience the joys I had already experienced made the books resonate. I loved that kid. I was not at all ashamed to stand beside children waiting to get the latest book when it was released at midnight. I shelled out extra to see Deathly Hallows Part I in IMAX. And Monday afternoon, there I was, forking over a little extra to see the final Harry Potter movie in 3D.

I'm not going to lie. It was an emotional experience for me. It was truly the end of an era, a decade long journey with these characters I had grown to love (and loathe). I wept pretty openly through much of the movie. I knew what was coming, but it didn't stop certain moments from hurting. When it was over, I had to sit for a couple moments and collect myself. I was emotionally drained and so grateful for the 3D glasses that hid the red, puffy eyes (glasses I kept on for several minutes after leaving the theater).

As a society, I feel like we owe a huge debt of gratitude to JK Rowling. She made reading an event again. Would Twilight have the power it does without Harry Potter? Would we already be going out of our minds over the very thought of a Hunger Games movie without Harry? Honestly, I'm not sure we would. These books reached passionate and reluctant readers alike by creating this vivid, dark, but welcoming world where we could all find a literary soul mate with whom to connect. Each and every one of us has a kindred spirit in Harry's world whether it's nerdy intellect Hermione Granger, the scampish Weasely twins, or even the darkly complicated Severus Snape. The fact that these characters were given so many shades made them all the more vivid and relatable. And once we found that connection to a literary character in Harry's world, it became so much more appealing to go out and find it in Bella's or Katniss's or Percy Jackson's or Lisbeth Salander's. The series may have ended, but these characters and their brothers and sisters live on and will continue to lead us into new and inventive worlds.

Thank you, Harry, for the adventures and for keeping reading alive.

Monday, July 18, 2011

On the Line No More

Yesterday marked the closing performance of All Shook Up. I've spent the past six weeks sweating my butt off (literally -- I've lost about 20 pounds this summer) dancing, singing, and having a pretty tremendous experience. I'm sorry the show is over because it was a lot of fun, but I'm not all that sorry to get a little more free time in a summer that ended up being much busier than I had initially planned.

As I've mentioned in previous posts about this show, this was an opportunity for me to face a lot of fears and overcome them one by one. I sang for an audition, I danced, and a couple weeks ago, I added another big fear obstacle -- I was asked if I would sing a the show. Over the course of the rehearsal process, I had grown a lot more comfortable singing. (I credit our very kind and gifted music director.) And so I found myself agreeing to take on this solo. During rehearsals, I was actually pretty comfortable with that. I only had three bars where I was truly "solo" (and yes, it was three bars that started off a whole song, but again, only three bars). It was a song I already knew ("Heartbreak Hotel"), so I didn't have to worry about learning something new. I kept the solo thing kind of quiet -- I told a friend or two but didn't tell my sister or anyone else. A lot of people in the cast knew how the prospect of a solo terrified me and were so supportive that it just didn't seem like a big deal.

Until opening night.

About noon (seven hours before opening), it suddenly dawned on me that this was real -- I was going to be singing all by myself in front of an audience. I had to start off a whole song -- a kind of important song -- OMG HOW WAS I GOING TO DO THIS?!?!? By about six, my stomach was in knots, there was the slight woosh of nausea whenever I thought about getting onstage. I felt as if all the color was gone from my body. Maybe I was high on the massive amounts of hair spray that had been pumped onto my hair, but I know stage fright and that's what I had -- big time. I told our director (who played my husband in Plaza Suite a little over a year ago) that I had never been this nervous before, not even in Plaza Suite when I had 30 pages of dialogue, never left stage, and was onstage alone with these little monologues two or three times.

But what could I do other than swallow it down, channel that fear into the energy it really is, and get my butt onstage and sing those three solo bars? And that's what I did. And once I sang those three bars and the rest of the chorus joined in, I swear I could literally feel the nerves floating up into the lights and leaving me so that for the rest of the run, I was fine and couldn't wait to get back onstage.

So what will I take away from this experience? A bunch. I learned that singing in public isn't really so bad. Maybe I'll take a crack at it again someday. (Although not next summer -- I'm not Pirates of Penzance ready.) I learned that dancing is hard but that eventually, you kind of get the hang of things. I learned that my students are as terrific to work with onstage as they are to direct. I learned that standing on the same stage that Fanny Brice once performed on is pretty freakin' amazing. And I learned that being in the final couple of months before 40 doesn't mean you still can't have late nights, dance hard, sing harder, and enjoy yourself. (Just look at the fun I am clearly having in the picture that accompanies this post!) You just might hurt a little more in the morning.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

It's a Tabloid World

One of the rather sad facts of my summer existence is that I spend about 2-1/2 months a bit tuned out from the rest of the world. Gone are my morning spent watching CNN while I get ready for work. Gone is the time spent listening to NPR on the drive to school. Sure, CNN is usually playing on the tv at the gym, but since I workout without my glasses on, it's generally just a blurry screen of people in suits yapping away while Phish or the Red Hot Chili Peppers serenade me through another 45 minutes on the elliptical machine. If it weren't for The Daily Show still having new shows during the summer and my weekly visits with Bill Maher, I probably wouldn't have a clue what was going on in the world during the summer.

And so, for the past several weeks, I have been pretty blissfully ignorant of our latest media circus going on down in Florida -- the Casey Anthony trial. I honestly didn't even really know it was happening until a week or so ago when I happened to pick up an issue of Time to keep me company on the elliptical (during that dark period when Elle Woods was dead and Bruiser had yet to join the family) and read an article about the trial being a media obsession. What I picked up from that article was that Americans were obsessed with this trial (and I have to admit I'm not 100% sure why -- Casey Anthony certainly isn't the first woman ever put on trial for killing her own child. Sadly, I think that likely happens just about every day in this country) and that the case against her was flimsy at best. The thing is that we as viewers (and I lump myself into this although, again, I didn't watch a single second of trial coverage) decided from second one that Casey Anthony was guilty and that public verdict seemed to stem from the gut rather than evidence. She sure seems guilty, so she must be guilty -- proof be damned.

The thing is, though, that we have set up in our society a system that offers us a pretty tremendous amount of legal protection should we be suspected of committing a crime. The burden of proof does not lie on us, the accused, but rather on those accusing us of the crime. Gut feelings, instincts -- that's not evidence. Anyone who's ever seen (or read or acted in or directed) Twelve Angry Men knows that guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and if you look at the evidence actually presented in this case, there is nothing BUT reasonable doubt involved no matter what our guts tell us.

I found out that Casey Anthony was found innocent of the murder charges the way a lot of other did -- through angry, vitriolic posts on Facebook. Almost instantly, there seemed to be the formation of a group called "F*** Casey Anthony." Other posts condemned her to hell, seemed to wish violence on her, calling her a "bitch" and a "whore". Others took a more compassionate approach, focusing on the little girl who died and setting up groups in her honor, sending out invitations for people to turn their porch lights on in remembrance of her. I saw her referred to as an "angel" more than once.

This whole thing bothers me on so many different levels. I am always turned off by this tendency we have as a public body to swing violent in our rhetoric on any issue. Whether Casey Anthony is guilty or innocent (and like a lot of people, yeah, my gut tells me she probably is not innocent), this ugly, nasty, brutish response to the verdict makes my stomach clench. It's that sort of mob mentality that could very likely doom us. Yes, we have a right to feel frustrated when we feel that an erroneous judgment has taken place. Free speech, yada yada yada. But when that frustration becomes vented in vile, violent ways, it ends up making us look like every ugly accusation that has ever been leveled against Americans. We should be better than that. Rhetoric like this is the kind of thing that gives some psycho the idea that it would be okay to open fire at a crowded political event.

Casey Anthony is an example of what is both right and wrong with our legal system. Yeah, I said right and wrong. Casey Anthony was found not guilty because the prosecution didn't do their job. They didn't present the evidence that directly linked Casey to the death of her daughter. (From what I understand, they couldn't even really prove HOW the little girl died.) They relied on emotional appeals to the jury rather than the factual appeals that a guilty verdict needs. Casey Anthony being found not guilty is a good thing in that it sends the message to prosecutors that they need to have all their factual ducks in a row and that juries are smart enough to know when they are being emotionally manipulated -- and that it takes more than a good tug at the heartstrings to reach a guilty verdict. Casey Anthony being found not guilty is a good thing in that it's going to force prosecutors to look at their cases very carefully and a lot of unjustly accused people may never have to spend a day in court and a lot of very guilty people may be sent away a lot easier because the prosecution is going to have to work that much harder. This case may lead to a strengthening of our legal system that's already, flaws aside, a pretty darn good one when you hold it up to what happens in courts around the world.

While it is heartening to see the outpouring of emotion for Anthony's daughter, there is also something about that which leaves me feeling a little unsettled as well. Maybe it's just the idea that it took her death for the world to rally together to support this little girl. There are countless kids out there that live in dangerous, abusive homes. They are beaten, neglected, and emotionally ravaged each and every day. Those are the kids we need to lift up. Those are the kids we need to protect. If the death of Caylee Anthony teaches us anything, it's that this village needs to step up and do a better job in making sure our kids are safe. Don't turn on your porch lights for them after it's too late. Turn on your porch lights and save these kids before we're caught up in yet another tabloid sensational trial. If someone had realized Caylee was in danger and done something sooner, perhaps our Facebook walls would be filled with a lot less hate and a lot more compassion.