Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Vast Fashionable Conspiracy

This Thursday, Project Runway crowned it's eighth winner for the show, second on Lifetime. The Lucy and I, sadly, did not critique the entire season because as it turns out, grad school programs take up a lot of your time (and bee tee dubs: congratulations to the lovely and amazing The Lucy on her newly minted MFA in Creative Writing!), but both of us were Team Mondo more or less from go. Gretchen Jones' collection was picked at the winner, and the world went apeshit.

First and foremost, here are the collections, courtesy of NY Mag.

Mondo Guerra
Gretchen Jones
Andy South

I was surprised throughout the judging process. I freely admit that I assumed that Mondo would win because he was such a complete competitor: a talented fabricator with a strong fashion point of view tempered by an openness to evolution in design. When I saw the three collections, I assumed it would be between Andy and Mondo. Andy's was not as various a collection as one would have hoped, but it presented a clear statement and was masterfully constructed. He made excellent use of texture in his fabrics and despite minimal color, the collection was never boring. Gretchen's was...more Gretchen. All season, she's been making the kind of stuff you'd expect on a resident of Taos, New Mexico who talks about crystals a lot and lives in an adobe house, but vacations in Aspen and drives a Land Rover, all in baby-poo colors. It was very cohesive and Gretchen is a great clothesmaker, but it was a snooze. AND it featured some kind of weird granny panties repeatedly, in the guise of pants. Mondo's collection was a blast. He used the over the top imagery of the Day of the Dead and old Mexican circuses but somehow wove it into a sophisticated, fun collection awash in his wonderful prints. It was spectacular and distinctive.

Then Gretchen won.

Project Runway, at its current level, features designers who are talented. This is an important thing to remember, because a lot of invective has been hurled at Gretchen that takes the form of accusations of incompetence. This isn't the case. She is a talented dressmaker, she is a talented designer, and she has original ideas. I personally would not let 95% of her stuff come anywhere near my body, but that's different from a lack of talent. No one is going to win Project Runway without a base level of talent, and Gretchen absolutely has it.

However, there is a larger question of What The Point Is. The stated goal of Project Runway has always been "finding the next great fashion designer." For the past several seasons, I think that the selections have been appropriate, even if they didn't go on to dominate the fashion world (which, incidentally, I don't think is possible or positive in fashion, so I actually count this as a good thing, even if I wish some of them would have made more of a splash in runway fashion). But this year, Gretchen won because she was "on trend" and basically because she was mass marketable, and that poses a real problem for Project Runway. I agree that Gretchen's collection was marketable...Nina Garcia and Michael Kors weren't wrong about that, as many people have been whining. The problem is, it looked like a goddamn Chico's. But there already is a Chico's, and frankly I'm not sure that Gretchen improves on the genre. If they wanted a unique, new voice, Mondo was the clear choice, as demonstrated not only in his final collection but throughout the show.

This all feeds directly into a conspiracy theory that The Lucy touched off a while back, which has now grown exponentially in my mind as evidence mounts. The idea is that Lifetime wants Project Runway shoehorned into its specific formula, the same one that brought the world all those classic Lifetime movies and various sexist-stereotypes-dressed-as-empowerment offerings. The first season that aired on Lifetime had been filmed before the switch from Bravo had been finalized, and thus had retained much of its original feel. This is the first season completely filmed under Lifetime's auspices, and it shows. The switch to the Bunim/Murray editing crew brought the jumpy feel of the house's other shows to Project Runway, which made this year's runway shows wildly irritating; the constant cuts and weird camera angles made it all but impossible to actually see the clothes completely. I also feel that Tim Gunn has been edited into a "safer" and more stereotypical picture of a gay man - a fey gay stereotype operating mostly on quips and light on seriousness, rather than the spectacularly knowledgeable, intelligent and unique human being that people have responded so well to from day one. This is not to say that some of the latter doesn't shine through - you can't take the awesome out of Tim Gunn - but I have noticed a specific and dramatic shift, and I find that deeply upsetting.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this is how Gretchen's win fits into the gradual Lifetimization of Project Runway. The discussion of the collections focused for the first time mostly on mass marketability, rather than creativity and big fashion. This fits right into the trend towards removing everything gutsy and challenging about Project Runway. Rather than watching the way aspirational fashion is created, we are now watching how shit you can buy at the mall gets produced. I fail to see either the benefit or the appeal of such a show. It's not that Gretchen is untalented, as I have said before - it's that she's not making fashion and she's not bringing anything new to the table. I am concerned about the future of Project Runway, and I think it would be a great loss for it to decay into cancellation.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Push, by Sapphire

After making a quick and dirty hundred bucks cleaning my sister's room for her (worst part: it was worth $100), I was headed home via South Station and realized I was bereft of fun reading, so I stopped at the little book shop in the middle of the concourse for something fun. When I went to check out, I saw that Bill Bryson had a new book out - review up next week! - so I bought that, but before that caught my eye, I had selected Push, by Sapphire, upon which the movie Precious was based. I handed it across the counter and the nice guy looked me right in the eye and said "make sure you're in a good mood when you read this, okay?" in the same tone you would expect if your mother was watching you get ready to go fight a herd of dragons with a pointy stick. It was fairly intense. I promised I would, and then got distracted by the Bryson book, which is just as well, as the train I caught to go home was one of the old crusty ones they run on the commuter rail sometimes and they always make me weird and sad.

Today I'm back in my sister's cozy North End apartment and decided to give it a read. It's a quick one, but it's heavy. I have not seen the movie, so someone will have to fill in with any comments on that aspect in the comments. It is a remarkably sad book. This is the story of a woman for whom being able to read at the age of sixteen is a massive achievement, abused in every way and saddled with more baggage than most of us could ever imagine. When we meet her, she is pregnant with her second child by her own father, who has been raping her for years. Her mother is an incredibly ignorant, foul human being who sees her daughter as no more than a device for sexual pleasure, food delivery and a permanent position on welfare. The only spot of light is the alternative school that Precious is sent to by a guidance counselor, where she is able to be away from her life for a while, make a few friends, and gather some meager skills. She begins to have actual aspirations for the first time in her life, and her progress in this realm - the development of a soul - is remarkable. The progress she makes in the social sphere, however, is less thrilling.

I've been talking with friends about politics more than usual lately because as I'm sure most are aware, it's a very contentious cycle in American politics this year and Election Day is closing in. It occurs to me that people like Precious and those like Bill Gates are the greatest challenges to any political system. Creating an environment where the average person is reasonably able to live and reasonably free is not that challenging. If everyone was born with a socially and economically clean slate, with abilities within a narrow range, it would be fairly easy to keep everyone content and busy. The challenge comes when you need to keep those average people happy while making sure that those who fall far below the average and shoot high above it are also allowed for. Accomplishing that balance is extremely difficult, and I think we're seeing a realization of that more and more as American history - and world history - moves forward.

I think that we should always be working towards human greatness, but doing so means understanding that there are two kinds of human greatness: individual and universal. There may only be a Churchill or an Alexander or a Washington or a Caesar once in many lifetimes - maybe even once in history - and these are the people who represent the pinnacle of human greatness as a whole. You need to leave room for these unimaginably creative thinkers to explore the full reaches of their minds while still grounding them in reality. But to find these people, we have to ensure that everyone is striving towards the apex of their own ability, and that's harder than you might think. "Everyone's individual ability" means having room for the system for genius and also for people who are barely able to function. Though a developmentally delayed person may never be able to do more than have the most basic job, they still should receive enough education to do that basic job the best they can. Precious is a woman so crippled by her circumstances that she cannot read and write at the age of 16. This book shows the effects of that inability: she is unable to make real moral judgments, certainly unable to articulate them, is choked by a kind of passive bigotry, and has very little idea of what options she has to get out of this situation.

A lot of people on the right want to gut these social welfare programs, and to a certain point I understand that, because abuse is rampant and the mechanisms designed to get people off of welfare are often ignored or broken down. The usual response is something like "they need to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps." For a lot of people, doing just that is an option. Working hard and disciplining oneself can bring you to a better place in life. But some people are starting without bootstraps, without a clean shirt in which to go to a job interview, without a shower. If we destroy these programs, make no mistake, we WILL continue to pay for these people one way or the other, particularly with an expanding lower class and a growing disparity between the rich and the poor. Whether it's paying for medical services or police services or any number of problems that follow poverty, or even eventually cleaning corpses off the streets, which I mention not as a scare tactic but a basic reality - I don't think anyone wants to leave human cadavers laying where they fall, even if you can get comfortable with the idea of letting people live or die by their circumstances (which I admit I am not) - eventually, we will pay.

It's human nature, I think, to read this story and cling to the fact that Precious is probably okay because she wrote this book and a wildly famous and successful movie was made from it. It's very tempting to add on a happy ending, and maybe for Precious herself that's all right. But you need to remember that for every Precious, there are hundreds of people without book deals, without vigilant guidance counselors, without defense and without dreams. It is for those people that we need to work and care. They are humans too, no matter how hard they may be to see.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Coming Attractions: Next Spring in Josie's Garden

Bulbs arrived from John Scheepers last week and I have a bunch of them in the ground already, with the rest slated to go in tomorrow. I was really happy with my bulbs from Scheepers last year, so I'm looking forward to this year's bounty. I have three main gardening goals for the fall-through-spring.
  • Pull and store dahlia tubers. I had a really depressing dahlia crop this year, which is totally my fault for planting them in less than ideal sun, but I am hoping I can get some tubers out of it and try again next year. Thinking about planting them in a new garden bed
  • Plant spring bulbs closer together. I'm really bad at estimating distance and length, so I planted my bulbs too far apart this year. I have a better idea of how close I can put them and I think it will produce a better result. All the blooms were very pretty, but I saw a lot of my neighbors and my Mom planting much closer together and I liked that look much better.
  • Actually pruning the shit out of the wisteria this winter. I often forget to prune it, and it's completely out of control. I'm mildly concerned about it hauling off our house or an unsuspecting neighbors' to the woods to digest it.
First up is a lovely pink narcissus called Precocious. It's a Grant Mitsch hybrid and is quite large for a narcissus. I think I will put this in front of the rhododendrons (which got a righteous pruning this summer - they were getting quite clogged up) with the light white ones I have there already.
On the tulip front, we have this peony flowering tulip called Yellow Mountain, which is a variant of another one I ordered called Mount Tacoma. It's this lovely butter yellow with distinct green stripes running up the outside. I love these peony flowering varieties!
This is one that my Mom turned me on to. It's an Emperor (also fosteriana) tulip called Sweetheart, which Mom bought after our cat Sweetheart passed away at the old age of 18. She planted them in the front yard and they were so striking that I just had to get some. They're very tall and have YOOGE blossoms. The coloring is interesting, too - a very soft blend of yellows and whites.
Of course, it's not a Brown Family Garden without some Perestroyka. I believe these are Darwin tulips (there are a couple breeds in the single late tulip category), but regardless of their genus, they are gorgeous. I think I like them most for their incredible range of color throughout their blooming period.
Here's the peony flowering tulip Mount Tacoma that I mentioned above. I bought this one partly because it's gorgeous, but also because the name reminded me of my friend Celia, who grew up in Tacoma, WA. This has the same light green striping as the Yellow Mountain variant, but on a creamy white petal instead of yellow.
I always plant some orange flowers because it's Rich's favorite color. I had planted Emperor's Orange before, but I liked the variations in color on this one, a Triumph tulip called King's Orange. This one also provides one of those wonderfully dippy descriptions that one only finds in flower catalogs, to wit: "Not for the faint of heart, King's Orange delivers vivid color with dark coral-red petals which blend to marigold-orange edges with a small canary-yellow center and an exterior yellow base." I really love the idea of some wizened little plant whisperer type sitting in their potting shed thinking "whoa! Just think of what these babies will do to the hostas!" then checking to make sure they have their heart medication handy and furtively circling King's Orange on their order form.
This parrot tulip is another tip from Mom. I had misidentified it for a friend who took pictures at my graduation party, confusing it for a variety with more white, but Mom set me straight before orderin' time. This one is called Estella Rynveld, and thought I don't usually love variegated petals, I am helpless before her.
Carnavale de Nice is my other variegation weakness. I had these last year, and I was thrilled with them. I actually think this shot of them is pretty lame. Last year, mine had much stronger red coloring and more of it, though much less yellow. This is another peony flowering variation.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Phenomenology of Human Interaction

In my last semester at Assumption I took a course called 20th Century Continental Philosophy (that's right, I heard those squees of excitement!), which was mostly a course on major thinkers in Phenomenology, with a side of Georges Bataille, who is mostly noted for being a crazy wackadoo but has some interesting thoughts on taboo and transgression. This was all vastly improved by my poor professor's thrown back, which meant he was teaching some fairly deep philosophy while wacked out on pain meds.

Phenomenology is interesting stuff, but I freely admit that I find it to be a little bit like That Stoner Kid You Know in that it thinks it's deeper than it is. The idea (at least from its founder, Husserl) is that everything is consciousness, and things appear to that consciousness. You then take a step further and stop thinking of them as appearing to YOUR consciousness and understanding yourself as a consciousness that is aware of itself as a consciousness (...yeah, I know). The idea was that racking everything back to a matter of consciousness would give a solid framework for considering all human knowledge, and it was supposed to make philosophy into a "real science," thus making Husserl one of like, three philosophers ever to give a shit about whether or not people thought philosophy was a hard science.

Anyway, I like many parts of phenomenology and if you're interested in reading more I'd recommend Robert Sokolowski's Introduction to Phenomenology, which is a great, plain-English overview of the philosophy. There's lots more to it, but for the time being I'm mostly concerned with the idea of understanding our individual selves as phenomena appearing to the world even as we see other things appearing to us. I think there's value in applying this concept to your everyday life, even if you're not going to be walking around all "I AM NOW ENTERING THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL POSITION" all the time.

The key thing here is being aware that you are appearing to other people, and understanding how you appear.

It seems like appearance, gender and relationships have come up a lot lately. Two examples stand out to me. The first was a discussion with friends involving a local political candidate's oft-worn blazer (tweedy, but short sleeved; 100% mysterious), which lead into a discussion about fashion in politics. Franchie, who is awesome and always very well put together, was saying that if she was in politics, she would always be in a cute dress and heels, etc. I explained that though she might look fabulous, there's a very specific way to dress up for female political figures, and she'd have a hard time getting taken seriously. It's unfortunate, but true. Though she might generally appear well dressed and fashionable, she would also appear to people as an unserious political figure, because dowdiness is to a certain extent de rigeur on the Hill and in politics at large. She'd have to adjust her appearance with the understanding of those perceptions. In this case, the example happened to be politics, but this is true anywhere. It's just as easy to flip it around to Franchie's work clothing. She works at a jewelry store, so she would stick out and be less likely to sell as much as she does if she didn't wear fashionable, feminine clothing, to say nothing of her jewelry choices.

The other instance was a friend of mine who likes to make sure his friends get home okay. This is okay on the face of it, but it's a definite Check Your Appearance situation. I used to have a friend like this in DC, too, and though it came from a caring place, I eventually talked to him and pointed out that I felt fine going home on my own and would in fact prefer if he left me to my own devices. In any case, the current friend was telling me about how he had decided to follow a friend home to make sure she got there okay. They hadn't discussed it beforehand, and though it seemed like a nice gesture, she wound up driving a long way out of her way to get home, and included a buzz past the police station in her route. That to me said that she'd identified my friend as someone of concern, and was trying to send a message. Even though he intended to do something nice, it appeared creepy. Appearances matter.

Let me be clear, men of the world - unless you talk to a woman first about making sure she gets home all right, it's not okay. It might be coming from the most charitable, kind place in your heart, but unless you actually see someone or something menacing that she doesn't, following her home is going to come off as creepy. I was actually just talking with Celia about "privilege" and how frustrating it can be when in discussions about various "-isms," people will tell you that you need to understand that you are privileged and acknowledge their oppression, but when you ask about it to understand it better you get the "it's not my job to explain your privilege to you" response or - even more aggravating - the "you can't understand it" one. It's very frustrating to try and work through your privilege (or perspective; I think "privilege" gets slung around excessively) and have someone stonewall your attempts to do so, even though the "not my job" thing is totally accurate despite being counterproductive, and for all these reasons, I try not to pull the "you wouldn't understand" card, but...the vast majority of men simply cannot understand the latent threat it is possible to feel as a woman from a man. It encompasses such a broad array of personal and secondhand experiences, cultural norms, and other social flotsam that there's just too much that can't be relayed effectively. It's as simple as this: as a man, you can be threatening just by being a man, no matter what you look like. And yes, it's completely unfair, and it shouldn't be that way, but right now, the way gender relations stand, that's how it is. You have to be aware of it and you have to do what you can to offset it.

The great thing is that this is totally avoidable! Just have the conversation, and be aware of how you're appearing. It takes some practice, but it's certainly doable.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

When I was done reading The Plot Against America, my reaction was "well, okay." It wasn't a bad book, and in fact there was a lot of good writing in it and it wasn't an uninteresting plot idea, but in the end it just left me cold. I also have a reflexive dislike of authors who seem really proud of themselves for doing research, because...duh, you should do your research. It's part of being a good writer. The back of Roth's book has not one but two indices of endnotes and general notes, but this is a fictional account. The best contrast I can draw is between this work and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which is clearly well-researched and incorporates that work into the fictional story, but doesn't tell you about it at every turn. The Plot Against America has this air of "and look at THIS little piece of fabulousity I found! *smirk*" every couple pages, and I just found that off-putting.

I tend to adjust slightly for the time when I hear about various public figures being bigoted jerks. The reason that mass movements of foul thought succeed is that some people find ways to make them palatable for a lot of people, usually by preying on fear and prejudice. When people feel insecure in their social environment, they're much more willing to consider radical political solutions. If you don't account for that, it becomes hard to consider historical figures, particularly since we like to imagine the larger-than-life figures of history as shining pillars of perfection. This book read to me like Philip Roth got really upset when he found out that Charles Lindbergh was kind of a bigoted asshole, and wrote a book about it. Now, Lindbergh WAS kind of a bigoted asshole (in my experience, many powerful public figures are, because the ability to summarily dismiss people who may question you is an important skill to have if you want to gain massive power), but I am not sure if that merits this kind of thought experiment. Roth explores the idea that Lindbergh was a secret Nazi and got elected to the US Presidency, then began enacting or allowing anti-Semitic violence and purges. It's an interesting idea, and Roth treats the banality of evil well, but in the end, the experiment ends inconclusively.

I don't want to continue with the plot because it's probably worth a read and I don't want to spoil it, but I will say that I found it problematic. What I DID like was the compelling portrayal of fear of government and the unrest that flourishes in the presence of radical politics. I think it's interesting, too, to see the idea of a neoNazi development played out in America, where we like to think we are insulated against extremist politics. The writing is pretty good, and the characters are interesting, but as I said at the outset, I am left wondering what the point of writing this book is,