Photographing Women: Waters, Reds, Writings, Wraps

West Seattle HeraldPrior to the final stage of Dawndra’s and my collaboration—the composition phase—Dawndra was very much a team-player, even more so than I expected. First, getting to know each other required a spirit of openness and imagination, because the information we gathered about ourselves, and the imagery we brainstormed, became our project’s subject material. Then, getting out in the field, setting up materials, posing and photographing, Dawndra and I each poured our physical energy into our shared ideas. Dawndra photographed, directed, encouraged—she even laid a towel over the bands of sharp pebbles on the beach so I wouldn’t cut my feet which were already frozen from wading in the Puget Sound. Finally, in this last stage, Dawndra took the reins, and I was eager to step back and witness her vision coalesce, and in what ways. What emerged is a series of portraits that sought to convey my inner world in response to my external one during a particular period in my life.

It’s both the most obvious and most pressing period of my life to respond to; the period of my life I’m best known for by the greatest number of people. It was a period wrought with pain, grief, isolation, and fear; a period of twisted plots, distorted characters, and overwhelming forces. Dawndra’s portraits respond through four phases of distinct aesthetic scenes which together tell an overarching story. The four phases I’ve identified as the Waters, Reds, Writings, and Wraps.

The Waters are dark images in black-and-white where I’m standing at the water’s edge, or in the water. A bit a la Joan of Arc, I’m bracing myself against the elements, which are alternatively gentle and violent—petals and smoke. Dawndra intended the ladder to symbolise a pyre, comparing the treatment of me to witch-burning, the layers of smothering smoke obscuring but small glimpses of me within it all.

Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.

The Reds are crisp and colorful images which rely on symbolism. Here, I’m no longer in the cold or on the pyre, but I’m in suspended animation. I’m unconscious and vulnerable, precariously still. Like the Hanged Man of Tarot cards, I’m dangling, in a state of flux, paradoxically secure and insecure, certain and uncertain.

Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.

The Writings are opaque, black-and-white images whose lens focuses on a prop. Faded into the background, I’m posed wearily, paused. In the bottle is a scrap from my letter writing days: Io lo so che non sono sola anche quando sono sola, meaning, I know I’m not alone, even when I’m alone. The keys are both in my hands and not. I can’t be the one to wield them for my own sake, so I entrust them to someone else, like a message in a bottle.

Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.

The Wraps are colorful and vivacious images. Where the Waters, Reds, and Writings rightly depict me as passive—because for much of that period of my life, I was severely handicapped and limited in what I could do—the Wraps are my favorite because they depict the part of me that I actually had control over, my internal self, which remained defiantly alive. The flying curls of my hair mimic the coils of the wire. I hold onto the last of what I can hold onto: myself. Nearly all the color and energy has been drained from me, but I try to make count the last of what I’ve got.

Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Photo by Dawndra Budd.

I didn’t know at the idea-gathering and photographing stages that these would be the images Dawndra and I would end up with. I also don’t know if Dawndra would offer the same narrative as what I’ve drawn from them. What I do know is that I feel like Dawndra saw me, saw into me, and the result is what she saw, rendered with sensitivity, imagination, and talent.

Thank you, Dawndra. See more.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 06/27/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Photographing Women: Taking the Plunge

Behind the scenes. Photo by Dawndra Budd.
Behind the scenes. Photo by Dawndra Budd.

In my limited modeling experience, the most difficult thing has always been the face. So much can be conveyed through a facial expression. It’s not as simple as deciding to smile. Minute muscles may compose all kinds of smiles—ecstatic, ironic, indulgent, concerned, condescending, embarrassed, communicative—the difference between them so subtle and yet so legible. Usually I don’t think about what my face looks like while I’m emotionally responding to a context which might make me smile. When modeling, suddenly I am made aware of not just one, but two simultaneous expressions: 1) my face in context, self-conscious about the act of playing pretend in front of a camera; and 2) my intended face, conveying the character of the composed image. If I’m not careful, the self-consciousness of the first will eek its way into the second, compromising my expression entirely.

West Seattle-based photographer Dawndra Budd and I convened in a nondescript building on Capitol Hill, in a pine-paneled room painted stark white, floor to ceiling. It was warm, clean, and offered a small assortment of furniture pushed into the corner: a white leather couch, a white coffee table, plush orange high-backed dining chairs, blue velvet pillows, a gilt-framed mirror. Bright natural light streamed through the opaque drapes at the windows. Dawndra bustled with Barbarella, her beloved Nikon D810, while I slipped on a flowy red dress with simple embroidery down the chest. It was Dawndra’s dress, one she had used in pervious shoots with other models. Once I had applied equally red lipstick, Dawndra delicately pulled out a grey-white moth from her bag and gleefully suggested she pose the dry corpse on my lips. “This is one of those improvisational things I do,” she explained. “I found this beautiful little guy on my kitchen counter this morning and I thought we had to find a good use for him.” I was game.

Dawndra had brought other creative props: a heavy metal chain you’d expect latched onto the anchor of a sailboat, a spool of thick black wire, rusty vintage keys, a silky opaque sheet, a thick rope, a silky dress slip. Over the next hour and a half we made use of them all, almost always to obscure or incapacitate me in some way—in keeping with the theme. I was aware of my face, of the many layers of subtle emotional expression I’ve accumulated in response to helplessness and captivity. I tried to relax, and was encouraged by Dawndra’s enthusiasm. Every so often, she took out her “toy cameras,” a Polaroid Instax Mini and a Lomo camera, photographed a few of the poses, and gave me the Polaroids as souvenirs of a session well-spent.

Polaroid by Dawndra Budd
Polaroid by Dawndra Budd

The body isn’t nearly so difficult to pose. Usually, only talented professionals may hope to convey through their postures all the complexity and subtlety of a facial expression. In my case, my body puts on a costume and reacts to an environment. My body is limited to what burden it may carry, what space it may squeeze into, how long it can maintain balance. Every so often there are happy mistakes, like the time I was posing for Madison in a nighttime shoot and my legs became entangled in a fold-up chair I was trying to quickly scuttle out of the road with in time for an oncoming car.

The Puget Sound is so, so cold on a cloudy, breezy morning, when you’re knee-deep, wearing a halter dress, and Dawndra’s tattooed assistant, Richard, rains the frigid salt water onto you from a large, tin watering can. To his credit, Richard apologized the whole time. He then dug the feet of a wooden ladder into the seaweed strewn pebbles, deep enough so that the first rung was submerged. My feet numb, the hem of my floor-length dress heavily saturated, I slowly wobbled up the ladder and stabilized myself. Richard handed me a smoke bomb, pulled out the ring, and orange smoke billowed around me. “Cool! Cool! Cool!” Dawndra cheered from the shore, clicking away. After the bomb fizzled out and the smoke dissipated, Richard gave me a reassuring nod. “It did look cool,” he reassured me. I smiled. I was shivering violently, but I didn’t mind. We were in this together. I readily fell back into the distant but familiar mindset of giving myself over to the art.

The whole experience—the studio session and the outdoor shoot—reminded me of one particular role in a play in a One-Act festival at my high school. Before I had ever kissed anyone for real, I had to kiss a fellow classmate, a friend of mine named Andrew, on the lips. Even worse, I also had to slap him across the face. During rehearsal, we tried all sorts of maneuvers for faking the kiss and the slap, without success. Finally, Andrew suggested we should just do it for real. We did, and when the time came, it worked—gasps rippled through the audience and I ended up being nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the festival. I took away the lesson that it’s better to give what the art demands of you, even, especially, if it’s uncomfortable. You have to just take the plunge. It helps when your photographer is as happy and encouraging as Dawndra is.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 06/20/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Stanford rape case: redirecting focus

West Seattle HeraldThere has been a lot of discussion and shaming surrounding the Stanford rape case—of the defendant Brock Allen Turner, presiding Judge Persky, and the criminal justice system as a whole. It’s the digital world equivalent of a lot of loud yelling, fist shaking, and rotten fruit throwing. There has, however, been fewer discussions—or lesser, quieter sentiments perhaps—about reparations for the victim. It’s like we consider punishment and shaming as society’s first responsibility, greatest strength, and ultimately effective means of seeking justice. As important as the prosecution and sentencing process is in the defense of sexual assault victims, we shouldn’t rely so heavily on the perpetrator’s punishment to right their wrong, especially when many, if not most, cases of sexual assault can’t lead to prosecution, a guilty verdict, and sentencing at all.

On January 18, 2015, while bicycling through the Stanford campus, students Carl-Fredrik Ardnt and Peter Jonsson saw a young man, Brock Allen Turner, on top of a young woman on the ground behind a dumpster. The woman was not moving, and Turner was thrusting his hips into her. Ardnt and Jonsson approached and asked Turner what he was doing. Turner stood up, and Arndt and Jonsson saw that the woman still wasn’t moving and was in fact unconscious. Horrified, they called Turner out and Turner fled. Jonsson chased after him and caught him. Ardnt and Jonsson then called the police and restrained Turner until police arrived.

The victim, referred to as Emily Doe to protect her identity, woke up the next morning in the hospital with pine needles in her hair, abrasions on her extremities, and no memory of the assault. She underwent an invasive examination, resulting in the following evaluation: her anus and vagina had been exposed to the outside, her breasts had been groped, fingers dirty with pine needles and debris had been jabbed inside of her vagina, and her bare skin and head had been rubbed against the ground.

What followed was a grueling legal battle over the validity of Emily Doe’s victimhood. Turner did not recognize his criminal responsibility, blaming intoxication and claiming consent. Over the course of the trial, Emily Doe was confronted with unreasonable scrutiny and humiliating, irrelevant questioning meant to delegitimize her. As the GIRLS cast point out in their PSA video, this is often the default reaction to a victim of sexual assault: to disbelieve, silence, and shame. In response, Emily Doe found the courage to articulate her experience of absolute vulnerability with clarity and dignity.

Regardless of the circumstances that lead Turner to doing what he did, he did do it, and on March 30, 2016, he was found guilty of three felony counts—assault with the intent to commit rape of an unconscious person; sexual penetration of an unconscious person; and sexual penetration of an intoxicated person. Emily Doe was vindicated.

The Stanford rape case would likely have disappeared from current-event-consciousness into the oblivion of countless similar campus rape cases were it not for the surprising turn at Turner’s sentencing on June 2, 2016. The maximum sentence Turner faced was 14 years imprisonment. Prosecutors recommended six. Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to just six months imprisonment, three year’s probation, and lifetime registration as a sex offender—what Gavin Kovite, a prosecutor friend of mine, says is akin to “a sweet plea deal,” not the sentence in a contested case where the criminal hasn’t admitted criminal responsibility or expressed remorse.

The vast majority of voices responding to Judge Persky’s sentence would have it that the term of Turner’s imprisonment and probation be much longer, to appropriately symbolize the severity of his crime and society’s absolute non-tolerance policy towards sexual assault in all its forms. This is both social and legal progress, because campus rape, like acquaintance rape, has historically been regarded as not a big deal and not prosecutable, because it’s not “rape rape”—a sodomist psychopath lurking in the bushes with a razor blade.

Within a civilized justice system, sentencing should impose the most lenient, effective punishment that neutralizes the threat of the present criminal and deters future criminals. Sentencing should not, however, seek vengeance. Perhaps Judge Persky is right, and Turner will only need to witness his reputation and future dissolve before his eyes, six month’s imprisonment, three year’s probation, and lifetime of registering as a sex offender to neutralize the threat of him re-committing sexual assault. Perhaps not. Judge Perky’s humanization of Turner-the-criminal is not abominable. However, Judge Persky’s restraint did in fact favor leniency at the expense of deterrence, and he deferred responsibility for the denunciation of the crime onto the rest of society, which, unfortunately, isn’t historically good at humanizing criminals and refraining from seeking vengeance.

It would indeed be an important reparation to Emily Doe if somehow society were able to make Turner recognize his wrongdoing. But there is no way to do that. No amount or form of punishment will necessarily make a perpetrator in denial recognize their fault. Rather, disproportionate punishment on the light end diminishes the symbolic severity of the crime, and disproportionate punishment on the heavy end encourages perpetrators to recognize themselves first and foremost as victims. Any punishment that is purposed towards vengeance, as opposed to rehabilitation and reintegration, is doomed to failure.

The Stanford rape case is the latest example of the problems afflicting our justice system regarding, yes, the unfairness of sentencing, but also, our reliance on sentencing to do right in response to wrongdoing.

If it were true that the only way to address the suffering of a victim were through the punishment of the perpetrator, then it would indeed be a travesty whenever leniency was shown. Fortunately, this is not the case. A sentence is not the only signal society can give that the severity and consequences of a crime matter. We can pay attention and care about the suffering of the victim, whether they are vindicated in a court of law or not. We can mandate educational programs that encourage awareness of the risk factors of campus sexual assault and rape, and educate youth on how to communicate and recognize consent. We can create safer environments for a victim to come forward and find solidarity and support, whether they can prove the assault occurred or not. We can embrace a victim through their recovery, offer them resources, give them voice, recognize their value and struggle, whether we recognize and punish the perpetrator or not.

In many, if not most, cases of sexual assault and rape, the crime is difficult to ascertain and, therefore, prosecute. While DNA testing and forensic evidence can prove sexual contact has taken place, the line between sexual contact and sexual assault is drawn by consent, the evidence of which often comes down to what he says versus what she says. In such cases, the crime cannot be determined beyond a reasonable doubt, and the justice system must rule in favor of the defendant. “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” states Blackstone’s ratio, one of the founding principles of our justice system, otherwise known as the presumption of innocence.

This is why it is especially important in cases of sexual assault, where, unlike any other crime, the proof is so often intangible, that we not confuse helping victims with condemning the accused without trial. It is important that society not necessarily correlate condemnation of the criminal with recognition of the victim, and in so doing deny the support and reparation a victim deserves. A better society is one that symbolizes the condemnation of a crime through the recognition and reparations to the victim more so than through reliance on the condemnation of the criminal.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 06/13/2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Photographing Women: Breaking the Ice

IMG_Dawndra Budd_2
By Dawndra Budd

Dawndra Budd’s photography is like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. She captures dark, whimsical scenes that are rich with symbolism, and within those scenes, ethereal protagonists: Ophelia drowned in a bird’s nest brimming with milk; Pandora curled up sleeping in a suitcase; a pensive debutante looking out over the sea; the White Lady obliterated by smoke, haunting a farmhouse.

What will Dawndra make of me?

I felt a twinge of nervousness at the prospect of entrusting my physical form to the vision of a stranger. But I also felt a twinge of nostalgia. My friend Madison often used to use me as a model in her photography projects. She also tended to have something elaborate in mind, involving costumes, props and, occasionally, some yoga prowess. Madison photographed me playing musical instruments on the roof of her apartment building, contorted into the crannies of a neighboring apartment undergoing renovation, asleep over a game of Scrabble in a deserted intersection in the middle of the night, to name just a few.

In these cases, my creative input was generally limited to what about my physical form I was willing to expose and able to arrange within a space. I was the furniture, and she the interior designer. And I was thrilled to do it. Being an intricate part of someone else’s art project is a type of creativity I don’t often get the chance to engage with. With Madison, the experience was freeing and fun. I didn’t know what it would be like with Dawndra.

We broke the ice by meeting at Admiral Bird Café to get acquainted. Petite and pale, with dark, long hair and large, expressive eyes, Dawndra is a bit like a smiley Morgan Le Fay. Her upper arms are covered in colorful tattoos, mostly of animals. At first meeting, we shook hands and we each seemed both eager and nervous, politely waiting for indication from the other.

“So, what’s your process like?” I asked.

“A bit all over the place,” Dawndra said. “I come up with ideas that involve props and costumes, but it’s mostly winging it. It’s about the person I’m photographing, and how do we feel that day? I try to make it a portrait of the model, but it usually comes out like a diary of myself.”

By Dawndra Budd
By Dawndra Budd

Dawndra explained that she took a photography workshop at the time of her mother’s death. No one in Dawndra’s class knew of her loss, and yet, when commenting on her photography, the class agreed that the pictures seemed to be about her mother, and that they were sad. Dawndra burst into tears. Her portraits of others expose deep emotional truths about her subjects and herself.

“What do you envision for me, then?” I asked.

“I do a lot of ‘a woman alone.’ A woman standing alone on the shore…or stuck in a jar. I put a lot of women into jars,” Dawndra said. “But with you, I wouldn’t want to do something too… obvious… You know what I’m saying?”

“You don’t want to put me behind bars,” I said.

Dawndra laughed. “Yes! But maybe something with water?”

This was not what I was expecting, to be so involved in brainstorming the vision. Even so, it felt right, collaborating on this end. Our ideas built off of each other, sparked other ideas. We parted ways, each of us unravelling the symbolism of our narrative selves. A few days later, inspiration struck and I wrote Dawndra an email:

Besides imprisonment and my fear of water/drowning, something else about my history that I thought might peak your interest is the fact that my accusers painted a portrait of me as a succubus, a femme fatale, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a devil with an angel face, a bewitching beast…all variations of the same theme: two-faced. I’d be interested in responding to that flawed mythology, in rejecting it somehow.

Dawndra responded a day later:

What people perceived you as… I had dreams about it! I’m very excited about this!

TO BE CONTINUED.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 06/06/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Photography | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Happy camper

West Seattle HeraldI’m a camper. Or, at least, I used to be. During the summers of my childhood, my family went on a few weekend and week-long trips to the campgrounds around Gold Bar and Lake Roosevelt in Eastern Washington. My middle school had an outdoor education program that included multi-day hiking and camping trips twice each academic year—to Mt. Rainier, Olympic National Park, and the peninsulas along the coastline. When the weather cooperated, my friends from the UW rock climbing gym and I piled together into one of our cars and drove down I-90 until we encountered a reliable cliff face or bouldering camp. During breaks in the schoolyear, my college boyfriend DJ and I hiked to muddy hot springs in the middle of nowhere, and glissaded, usually head over heels, down mountainsides. I brought all my camping gear—tent, sleeping bag, camping stove, rock climbing gear—all the way to Italy, taking up valuable room in my suitcase, because I was looking forward to hiking trips in the Umbrian countryside, particularly around Lake Trasimeno.

Now, for the first time in many years, I’m headed outdoors again.

It’ll be a soft reintroduction to the wilderness—one of those family camping trips that are just like family BBQs except no one will be divvying up leftovers and going home. We will drive right up to the camp grounds and be comfortably limited to the resources packable into a Subaru Forester, as opposed to what we can lug in on our backs. Coolers full of food and drink! Air mattresses and comforters! Chips and salsa! Aunt Christina and Uncle Kevin will even have their RV, so as long as the water lasts, there will be the opportunity to take a shower.

The days will be quiet and slow. Chris will disappear to the water’s edge for fishing. Oma will walk all the dogs—Pinky, Cinder, Lola, Griffy, Andy, Dozer and Tessa—and they will get the attention they constantly crave, especially if they manage to roll in something dead-smelling. Mom and Aunt Christina will busy themselves with improvements to the grounds, or else gossip across the picnic table and a game of dominoes. I will hunker down with a book. There will be copious snacking.

The evenings will be loud and fast. Kyle and Uncle Kevin will negotiate the campfire. Chris will reappear to grill the chicken breasts. Jackie and Deanna will slice the cheese, onions and tomatoes. The rural darkness that comes on quickly will remind us of our proximity to each other as well as the depth of empty space that surrounds us. Tent walls are thin as the wind; there’s no use retreating into them until weariness overcomes us. We’ll sit around the fire into the night, long after everyone’s retired their words, and read the shapes of the stars sirening through the deep darkness of the sky. I’ll hold a stick in my hands and listen to the crickets.

I’ll remember the special meaning of the place. Here I learned to gut a fish. Here we built sandcastles. Here I almost drowned and you saved me. Here we scattered Opa’s ashes. It’ll be easy-going, but it’ll still be camping. I don’t know what’s kept me.

Oma and Andy.
Oma and Andy.
Deanna and Griffy.
Deanna and Griffy.
Janet chillaxing.
Janet chillaxing.
Chris and Deanna by the fire.
Chris and Deanna by the fire.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 05/30/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Review: ArtsWest’s Death of a Salesman

West Seattle HeraldArthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was first performed in 1949 and has since been celebrated as one of America’s greatest plays of the 20th Century. Presumably this is because of its subject matter—the debunking of the American Dream—and because of the urgency felt by the audience to witness the dissolution of this false idol depicted in a relatable way. In the play, Miller fluidly juxtaposes scenes of the promising past of an average American family, the Lomans, against their disappointing present through the eyes of the emotionally and mentally unraveling father, Willy. Their tragedy is meant to feel all too familiar, serving as an everyman example refuting American idealism: that each one of us is special, that the top of the food chain is within reach, that success is the source of happiness. The Lomans’ tragic loss of innocence finally allows for a new kind of truth to emerge—that Americans may be “a dime a dozen,” but at least we know what we truly are.

ArtsWest’s stage design and direction shines throughout this production, thanks to the talent of director Mat Wright and scenic designer Christopher Mumaw. The stage is layered with tiered floor space and fractured by walls that are more like statues of walls. The dark spaces left between them allows for some characters to pass behind them like ghosts and emphasizes how insubstantial the world the Loman family have created for themselves really is.

David Pichette was powerful as Willy Loman, a character who is an uncomfortable confrontation of despicable and pitiable. When his delusion is working in his favor, he shines, when not, he seethes. Pichette pours out energy that crackles throughout the theatre.

Eleanor Moseley as Linda Loman, Willy’s wife, was stiff at first but warmed up to her part, especially in the scene where she comes out of her shell and calls out her sons for looking down on their father even though he loves them more than he loves anything else.

The excellence of the ArtsWest production aside, Death of a Salesman is hard to relate to as a millennial. The American Dream isn’t what it used to be, even if making money and being well-liked (getting a million hits on Youtube) has carried forward. For instance, Willy’s son Biff and his central drama. Biff considers himself a bum because he can’t bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps. Nowadays, people don’t follow in the footsteps of their fathers. If anything, that kind of behavior is looked down upon, because it flirts with nepotism. Rather, the average millennial’s dream is to somehow find a way to figure out and do what you want to do. Biff has already succeeded at realizing he’s a rancher at heart, a man of the earth, and has successfully integrated himself into that world. To the average millennial, his self-awareness is a dream come true. Who cares if his dad whines about it? If his dad really loved him, he’d be proud that Biff paved his own path. As an audience member with millennial sentiments, instead of feeling for Biff, I can only pinch my brow in bored befuddlement.

Perhaps, then, the value of Death of a Salesman is perspective. Here’s the story of how whole generations of Americans failed to make themselves happy. If we find ourselves still unhappy, what are our comparable mistakes?

Death of a Salesman plays April 28 – May 29, 2016 at ArtsWest Theatre (4711 California Ave. SW Seattle, WA 98116), Wednesdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased online at www.artswest.org or by phone at 206.938.0339, or at the box office.

First published by the West Seattle Herald on May 20th, 2016.

Posted in Journalism | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Taking notes on motherhood from the Crystal Gems of Steven Universe

West Seattle HeraldIt’s easy to become absorbed in Steven Universe, an animated series that I’ve been binge-watching ever since another favorite animated series, Gravity Falls, came to its epic “weirdmageddon” conclusion on February 15th. Like the Gravity Falls’ magic- and mystery-riddled Pacific Northwest, Steven’s universe is only a little different from our own. The earth is populated by normal people with normal jobs, and Steven is a tubby pre-teen who’s noteworthy only because he’s uncommonly kind, and he’s half-human. His other half is Gem, an ageless, technologically advanced, and magical alien species of sentient gemstones who take on humanoid form. Steven’s guardians are the three Crystal Gems—Amethyst, Pearl, and Garnet—whose missions are to protect the earth, even against their own kind, and to raise Steven, the unnatural offspring of their beloved leader, Rose Quartz.

It’s an addictive show. Each episode is only about 10 minutes long, so it’s easy to pull one up even as you’re tying your shoes to head out the door. Steven’s allure is that he is an unlikely, but inevitable hero. Not much of a fighter, he harbors his mother’s powers and seems too good to be true—too much of a sweet, kind, open-hearted person to be real—except that he is. Because he cares so much about others, you can’t help but care for him, and you want to keep pulling up episodes to see how he grows. But more alluring than Steven, at least to me, are the Crystal Gems, because of how they nurture Steven’s growth. In every episode I find myself taking mental notes on their gestures, strategies, and sentiments in regards to their alien, but deeply felt motherhood. I’ve not been so moved and provoked to thought about this other aspect of the coming-of-age experience by an animated series.

Each Crystal Gem is her own unique personality, and therefore, her own kind of mom. Amethyst takes risks and encourages Steven to do the same, to make mistakes, to get his hands dirty. Amethyst is younger than her comrades, only a few hundred years old, so she has less wisdom to offer, but she relates more to Steven’s immaturity. Only Amethyst would covertly team up with Steven to perform some antic, like pose as a semiprofessional wrestling duo. By indulging in her powers also for pleasure, as opposed to restricting them to dutiful purpose, Amethyst provides Steven occasion to stumble upon his own powers through play.

Pearl sits in counterpoint to Amethyst. Overlooked on her home planet as nothing more than an elegant but dirt-common servant, Pearl is poised and self-disciplined, though she’s not a disciplinarian. She’s had to prove her worth and is sensitive to Steven’s struggles to prove his own. She’s also alert, even anxious, for Steven’s wellbeing, and offers Steven a gentle, reliable safety net in physically dangerous situations as well as in emotionally difficult times.

Bigger, stronger and wiser than either Amethyst or Pearl, Garnet is the de facto leader in lieu of Rose Quartz. She exudes confidence and warmth, though she can be intimidating. She is principled, and ardent about her principles, a harmonious balance of passion and reason. This is because she is actually a fusion of two gems—ruddy, rowdy Ruby and calm, collected Sapphire. Garnet is the embodiment of Rudy and Sapphire’s individual identities as well as their love for each other. For this reason, Garnet is particularly alert to Steven’s self-awareness. She understands when Steven needs challenge when he needs support in his journey of coming into himself.

Rose Quartz is Steven’s actual mother, though she is absent from his life. This is because Gems don’t reproduce like humans. Gems come into existence like gems—through the crystallization of specific elements in the earth. To bring Steven into existence, Rose Quartz had to give up her physical form and her gem to pass on to him. Steven is the product of the unconditional love and self-sacrifice of mothers like Rose, who are willing to give their whole selves for their children.

This last quality of motherhood, self-sacrifice, most reminds me of my own mother. I’m reminded of how, from a very young age, I intuitively knew Mom would give her life for Deanna and me. I dreamed countless dreams of adventure and danger—one in particular comes to mind, where I had to jump across a field of stumps rising from a bottomless darkness—and in every dream, Mom saved me from falling, failing, suffering, fear. This is because, in my real, waking life, Mom lived first and foremost for Deanna’s and my happiness, safety, and fulfillment. There was never a question of us deserving or earning this love—it just was. Her example has ever since then given me insight into how I should relate to my loved ones—my siblings, family members, friends, fellow human beings—but most especially, my own babies, when they come.

Steven Universe’s Crystal Gems have given me further insight.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 05/16/2016.

Posted in Journalism, Personal | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Consensus reality

West Seattle HeraldI remember it like this: Deanna and I were relegated to the seats while the adults wakeboarded. The speedboat was fun—wind whipped our stringy hair, the bow-broken spray stung our cheeks, and the boat bounced viciously over the waves Uncle Kevin drove zigzag across the lake—but I was six-years-old, and I wanted to try.

Back on shore Mom had reluctantly agreed, so when it was my turn, Uncle Kevin idled the engine while Uncle Mickey and Aunt Christina double-checked the straps of my life vest and pulled out the kneeboard. It was as tall as I was, oval-shaped, the bottom smooth and white, the top a firm, hot pink foam molded to cradle my knees. They laid the board on the stern and showed me how to sit on it, my shins against the foam, my butt on my heels. They pulled a heavy velcro strap across my thighs and gently tipped me into the water, the buoyancy of the board tipping me almost onto my back. I wobbled into starting position—reclined backwards, the front tip of the board pointed towards the sky—and Uncle Kevin revved the engine. “Keep your head up!” they said.

I was jolted forward and lost my hold on the tow-line. A few attempts later, I pulled up and over the churning wake. It was thrilling and abrasive. My whole body tensed to maintain balance and grip; tears streamed from my wind-bitten eyes. I ventured a one-handed wave at Deanna gazing wide-eyed back at me from her seat. That’s when I lost control.

In the tumble, the board flipped over and trapped me beneath the water, my thighs still strapped tightly to the board. I remember darkness, and the feeling of bubbles churning around me. I remember flashes of water-distorted sunlight around the edges of the board, and hitting my forehead against it as I struggled to tip back over. I remember flailing, and trying to kick, and my hands frantically ripping at the heavy strap.

Deanna remembers being first to notice that something was wrong. There was a splash when I lost my grip, Aunt Christina raised the orange flag, and Uncle Kevin steered a wide arc to retrieve me. Deanna saw the white bottom of the board, and as they drove closer, she saw my little hands, just my hands, pecking the surface of the water.

“And I was bewildered,” Deanna recounted between sips of margarita, “because I was only four and I looked around me and suddenly everyone was just gone! Uncle Kevin, Uncle Mickey, and Aunt Christina had all dove into the water to rescue Amanda. I’ll never forget that. Your little hands…”

Deanna and I were reliving the episode for my partner and his friend at an impromptu Cinco de Mayo party at Mom’s house. As we told the story, I was struck by how this single event, my close encounter with drowning, was somehow more real when viewed from both our perspectives. I could visualize myself through Deanna’s memory—my smallness overcome by the board and the lake. I wasn’t small in my memory; rather, the board was big and the strap was heavy and the water was everywhere. Both memories were true, but together they were truer. We bore witness to each other, adding legitimacy and dimension to a consensus reality that was greater than the sum of our individual realities.

I’m familiar with the negative side of consensus reality. Sometimes we aren’t direct witnesses to an event that we want to objectively understand, and we must sift through information anywhere on the reliability scale. This is how courts of law establish truth beyond a reasonable doubt. But sometimes we rely on the wrong proofs—eyewitness misidentification, improper forensics, false admissions/testimony—and objective reality is drowned out by consensus. The consequences are devastating. This moment in the kitchen with Deanna struck me because it was an example of the positive side of consensus reality, and showed how people can help each other better understand what we know.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 05/09/2016.

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Nick Drummond’s debut album Follow the Rivulets has strengths but plays it safe

West Seattle HeraldNick Drummond is artful in his new, debut solo album, Follow the Rivulets. It’s not a huge departure from the folky blues of his previous band, The Senate (Rivulets includes new versions of two songs previously released on The Senate’s last album, The End is Over), but it is distinctly Drummond running the show.

He has a lot going for him. Drummond treats his voice like an instrument—a crystal clear instrument he wields with confidence and melds into a mellifluous haze when he harmonizes with himself. His lyrics, while occasionally cheesy, paint a picture of the pacific northwest, with our water, trees, leaves, wind, and tattooed women. When his rhymes risk being too tight (embrace/face, another/brother), he softens their blow with tasteful fluctuations in the melody. His back-up band is ever-interesting and on point, imitating rain with brush strokes to the snare drum, setting a beach party scene with cheerful plucking, and waking the dead with that haunting reverb on the guitar. Drummond is particularly skilled at pacing—he’s fluid between rhythmic minimalism and orchestral crescendo, arranging these highs and lows around emotionally heightened moments in the song’s narrative. This skill struck me particularly in the instrumental, Waiting for the Dawn, where Drummond’s layered voices, sans lyrics, carry you through what feels like dreamscape.

Still, for all its good points, Follow the Rivulets is missing something.

Drummond spoke to me about wanting to confront subjects like heartbreak and anger with optimism, and his goal was for the sound of his songs to reflect that. He’s successful with Whistling Wind, where gritty, aching blues are juxtaposed with crescendos of hopeful melody. The listener is reminded that these conflicting emotions can coexist in a single person’s experience, and compelled by suspense to follow along until the end, to find out how these two conflicting tones resolve themselves. But then, in How Strange, the upbeat guitar plucking swallows the lyrics laden with negative emotions. The optimistic tone and the negativity of the lyrics don’t inform each other, so their juxtaposition comes across like Drummond is trying to hide his worst thoughts behind happy grooves.

Rivulets also feels, at times, a little too Jack Johnson—playing it safe. For instance, Drummond designs the album to end on a high note, which is great, except that the final song, Firefly, is too tidy, neat, arranged, and pretty for a song about letting loose. It’s nice, but it doesn’t pump me up and make me want to “shake my number.” It’s probably better live, when Drummond himself lets loose.

Follow the Rivulets was released April 10th and is available through iTunes. For more information on the album and the artist, visit www.NickDrummond.com.

First published by the West Seattle Herald on 04/30/2016.

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Public and personal

West Seattle HeraldIn my columns I walk a fine line between the public and the personal. I seek to strike the right balance between exploring universal thoughts and grounding those thoughts in the real circumstances of my life that inspire them. That’s how my brain works. Context is the diving board from which I launch into analytical thought.

At least, that’s the goal. Sometimes I struggle to fully develop the thought. Writing is hard! Sometimes I struggle to convey the necessary circumstances of the context. For instance, it can be intimidating to address wrongful convictions issues because so much of the fundamental material of that experience, legal and personal, needs explicit explaining. Other times, like with an inside joke, the backstory leading up to a thought is convoluted with layers of history that my audience would have to be “in on” to appreciate. Usually, though, the problem of context is measuring the appropriate weight of personal exposure for public consumption.

As long as I can remember, I’ve kept a diary. My diary is not my column, or my Facebook feed, or my blog. My current diary is a series of nondescript notebooks that I carry everywhere with me and into which I dump my mental load whenever I get the chance. That mental load includes observations about unprocessed experiences, rehashings of recent interactions, venting of frustrations, copied down phrases, half-hearted musings and flaky philosophy, sometimes all rolled into one. To give you an example: “To say? To do? This has as much to do with taste as it does with talent. In the absence of God, Jack wants to play…”

What does that even mean!? I don’t know, and that’s the point. These accumulated fragments are not meant to represent the depth and range of my inner world, nor be interpreted as communications, even with myself. My diary is simply a tool, like a basin into which I can pour and store my scattered thoughts and observe them for myself under different lights. My column, then, is the exact opposite of my diary.

Tiptoeing so often along this fine line, I’m careful to provide the appropriate amount of context needed to communicate my thoughts. I cringe to witness others taking less care. Take Facebook. I’ve seen a woman post to announce her divorce because of her soon-to-be-ex’s porn addiction. I’ve seen a kid friend rant about being dumped via text while at the orthodontist. There are seemingly endless examples of emotionally-charged thought fragments, binge product and afterthought, meant for no one but posted to everyone, just flung out there.

I’m not the first to condemn the treating of Facebook and other social media as a diary. There are all sorts of memes on the subject, including, “Tell a therapist, not Facebook,” and, “Hi, just wanted to remind you that Facebook is not your diary. We don’t give a shit about your feelings. So STFU.” Longer informal discussions, like “Your Wall Is Not Your Diary,” complain that such behavior is an annoying and embarrassing cry for attention. The authors of these memes and discussions focus on the perspective of the unimpressed audience accosted by irrelevant, crass, and immature personal material from questionable sources that they, the audience, don’t choose to stop following for some reason.

I have a different perspective. Many people greedily consume irrelevant, crass, and immature personal material from questionable sources. That’s trolling and tabloid journalism, and there’s no telling when one’s fragmented, unprocessed and previously overlooked outbursts may be recycled into the fodder of scandal and public shame. Foxy Knoxy used to be just a soccer nickname.

But even more than that, I’m concerned about how ubiquitous transparency is becoming the new definition of honesty. I think a lot of people who treat Facebook like a diary don’t do so because they can’t control their impulse to outburst, but because they have been conditioned to believe that impulse is authenticity, that restraint is dishonest, like advertising is dishonest.

I don’t think that’s true. I think my inner world belongs to me and me alone, and I have the power to choose what, when, where, and how I want to share myself. Lately my world has been lit up by new work and new love, and for now, these parts of myself belong close to my heart.

First published by the West Seattle Herald 05/02/2016.

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