Saturday, 23 February 2008

Happy New Year, You Dirty Rat!

I had occasion last week to go to an Asian New Year celebration to celebrate the year of the rodent. Wikipedia my source for much that is popular culture, explains:

"Being the first sign of the Chinese zodiac, rats are leaders, pioneers and conquerors. They are charming, passionate, charismatic, practical and hardworking. Rat people are endowed with great leadership skills and are the most highly organized, meticulous, and systematic of the twelve signs. Intelligent and cunning at the same time, rats are highly ambitious and strong-willed people who are keen and unapologetic promoters of their own agendas, which often include money and power. They are energetic and versatile and can usually find their way around obstacles, and adapt to various environments easily."

It then goes on to talk about the rat's natural charm, noting, "Behind the smiles and charm, rats can be terribly obstinate and controlling, insisting on having things their way no matter what the cost." Charming, huh? Well, that isn't the word that springs immediately to my mind, so that's when I had to stop and think a bit. I just had to wonder about our president, George W. Bush - he is charming, ambitious a conqueror - you know - but after all that, it turns out he is not a rat. His father is.

Anyway, those in the horoscopic know think we can expect a year focused on aggression, wealth, charm and order. Ho hum... what else is new?

The Asian New Year celebration, by the way, was marvelous and we had a chance to see several new year's dances including this amazing dance group who played the drums in perfect precision. (It was suggested I might be culturally insensitive because I said this group was Chinese - the program said they were - perhaps they changed the order. My anonymous commenter says they are probably Korean. Apologies if I offended anyone or if it was a misnomer.) The dance was lovely regardless. There were presentations by a variety of cultures and there was much good will and desire to share amongst our various cultures.

We got a chance to enjoy wonderful food, a festive atmosphere and lightness of heart before the rodents start streaming into our year.

George W. Bush, by the way, is a dog. (Loyal, assertive, playful, restless, assertive, stubborn). Hillary Clinton is a pig (honest straightforward, patient, materialistic, hesitant, naive) Obama is an Ox (honest, caring, intelligent, inflexible, materialistc. petty, critical.) If it really is the year of the rat, however, I guess we'll end up with this guy.

Frankly, in this year of the rodent, I'm still holding out for a Pika. They seem like cute little unassuming individuals and I've simply had it with our everyday rats.

Yup, I'm going to call this the year of the Pika! Pika,pika. Pika, pika, pika, anyone?

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Guthrie Review: Third

As usual, I have decided to put down a few thoughts about the most recent play at the Guthrie. This time it is Wendy Wasserstein's "Third." For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Wasserstein, she was a popular New York playwright who focussed on women's issues before her death from Lymphoma in 2006. Wasserstein is most famous for her work "The Heidi Chronicles."

(From Jewishwomen's Archive

As you know I am a big fan of the Guthrie Theater community and as usual they come through beautifully. Direction by Casey Stangel is sensitive and intelligent and Sally Wingert may have produced her greatest performance ever. Her rendition of New England superstar, Left-Wing Feminist college Professor Laurie Jameson rings with accuracy from the boots and long wavy blonde hair to her method of sitting on her classroom desk and twiddling her glasses as she lectures the audience with slides and sharp commentary. Wasserstein's language is piquant, costumes are superb reflections of their characters and the way the Guthrie turns the space into a large College auditorium is just right. The "antagonist", the young man that Dr. Jameson will accuse of plagiarism, was sitting three seats down from us during the opening lecture on Goneril and Reagan as the true heroines of King Lear before bounding onto stage to ask his questions and begin the real action of the play.

(From Chicago Broadway world

In case it is unclear to anyone, I think the cast is absolutely fantastic!

The essence of the story is that Jameson - a child of the early feminist movement - is suspicious of the student, at her college for a sports (more specifically wrestling) scholarship and his perfectly written Lear paper, so she brings him up on charges of plagiarism. This affects his life in a significant way. Tony Clarno does a stellar job as Woodson Bull III, an enthusiastic and bright-eyed student who prefers to be called Third and whom Jameson accuses of being a privileged White male slumming at her East Coast institution. He portrays just the right balance of polite manners and good natured idealism to be convincing as the elusive Mr. Bull.

He is joined in excellence by Emily Gunyoo Halaas, playing Jameson's disaffected daughter, Angela Timberman who plays a principalled Jane Austen scholar with cancer and Raye Birk as Jameson's pathos-inspiring alzheimer-afflicted father. Halaas in particular does a good job of depicting the next generation with its insecurities about the future and petulance search for an individual way.


The cast, the direction, the costumes and even the set (an opened up cube with images projected upon it to suggest various locations such as a kitchen, a bar, a classroom) was fantastic and yet for me the play was vaguely dissatisfying. This led to an extensive discussion between my husband and myself on the two hour ride home from the theater. This means something, because that ride is usually spent in reflective silence. In searching for what bothered us about the play we ultimately had to settle on the structure and writing of the play as being responsible for our disppointement.

What follows will contain spoilers.

In fairness, I must disclose that I am a College Professor that teaches the same kind of courses taught by the main character Laurie Jameson. For this reason I already had difficulty in the opening sequence with the way that Jameson treats her student athlete and insinuates that as an athlete he is unlikely to get much out of her class. As a feminist, surely she must realize that the White male privileged are precisely the people whose minds she must change. The opening scenes set up the primary kernel of the play which is that this person who has fought so hard for tolerance and acceptance of women as equals has become calcified in her own anti-patriarchal ideology, making judgments based on external factors and being every bit as unfair as the people against whom she has struggled all her life.

Wasserstein strives to make her main character likeable despite this flaw, giving her a difficult family life with a husband who is always off-stage and never visible, a father who is in mental decline and two rebellious daughters, but something just doesn't click.

I believe there are two primary problems here - both are structural and make the play a bit difficult to stomach. The first relates to the fact that the play focusses on the development of a single character. Jameson is flawed and the young man for all intents and purposes is innocent and ill-used because of our main character's prejudice. The clash of ideas seems to me unsatisfying, because as her friend must remind her after the plagiarism review, jameson is simply wrong and unwilling to admit it. It will be a play about change - about how a young man becomes less idealistic because of the ways of the world and about how Jameson needs to change in her third season (post menapause) of life. This you see, is a comedy.

Comedy of course means a happy end. Wasserstein ends her play with an apology and the two characters walking off into the woods each heading his/her own way to start afresh. The tying up of all anguish into conciliation, the curing of the Jane Austen scholar/friend of cancer and marrying her off to a Rabbi she met while on drip is just too facile an answer and rings hollow against the opening of the play with its serious issues.

Then there is the resultant ideology. Wasserstein was dying of cancer as she wrote this play and no doubt she longed for and was seeking just this kind of happy ending. Personally, however, I have problems with so blithely accepting the popular myth of the humorless and excessive postmodern lit Prof. Bob Verini, critic for Variety, notes in writing about the Geffen playhouse production, that Wasserstein could just as easily have reversed the political vectors, adding,

"For the contempo audience, especially given Wasserstein's impeccable progressive credentials, "Third" can't help but raise hackles in suggesting that the Left's assumptions, forged in the fires of the antiwar '60s, need to be continually reassessed lest they petrify. No traitor to her views, scribe is brave enough to point out that a professed commitment to openness and free inquiry may serve to shield behavior actually designed to shut down minds."

The student, Bull, who prefers to be known as Third, says at a political open-mike rally, "when someone like me, a Midwesterner, and athlete, on the fence politically, comes looking to you for answers, I am dismissed, even before I ask the goddamn question. And from my point of view, that’s how you lost this country. " Third's response to Jameson at the end is that we need to feed the world on hope.

While all this is true, it seems to me that the conclusion that people who have fought so long for fairness and equality need to lighten up and have hope is not only naive, but also doing an injustice to those who have struggled so hard and are still fighting to equalize the tables. That of course is my own personal bias. Would I have been happier if the political roles had been reversed, if the arch conservative male Professor walks off having apologized to the innocent liberal feminist student? No, I think that ending (although for me more emotionally satisfying) is equally unrealistic and unfaithful to the earlier tone of the drama.

It is hard not to compare this play with Mamet's Oleanna which does reverse the roles giving us the sympathetic male Professor accused of sexual harrassment by the strident feminist student. In both cases, I think the cards are stacked against the feminist and it bothers me (despite claims that the theater tends to embrace the liberal side of the paradigm) that the answer is for women to be less confrontational and get a sense of humor. Finally, I don't begrudge the cancer victim her chance to beat cancer a second time, but surely she doesn't have to be a confirmed bachelorette Jane Austen scholar who at the end is reborn to fall in love, marry the Rabbi and live happily ever after. (Feel free to substitue doctor, dentist or professional of your choice for Rabbi in that previous sentence). I just have to wonder, haven't we women been fighting against those dreams inflicted on us by our mothers and society long enough to find ourselves a much better happy ending?

Saturday, 16 February 2008

A New Picture - Nezu Jinja

Yesterday before work, I wrote a blog about our trip to Japan next September. The post included an image of an historic Japanese home which had been picked up and moved to the Architecture museum just North of Sapporo in Hokkaido. What I did not include in the post was that I had originally wanted to post a different image, but blogger had been reluctant to accept the upload and thus I had to go to work before being able to capture the image. At work, I had to find another image of peace and tranquility, but I am a creature of unrest, so this morning I decided I would once again try to upload the original image.

This is a watercolo(u)r that I did of a shrine, Nezu jinja, near the University where we will be staying. The shrine is right around the corner from the school and I spent many jet-lagged sleepless mornings at 4:00 and 5:00 AM drinking in the beauty and peacefulness of this shrine complex.

There are three larger buildings and a long series of graceful orange arches for the penitant and hopeful. Reportedly the foxes will come and avenge those who enter with dubious intentions.

I have passed consecutive Spring mornings watching the opening of the plum blossoms and been fortunate enough to see the surrounding hill walls ablaze in the pink of the abundant azaleas.

During the azalea festival, Matsuri, the whole area and neighborhood are hung with paper streamers welcoming Spring. It is a very popular weekend outing as you can see.

Unfortunately we will not have the opportunity to see the marvels of Spring in our next visit, but there will be a new season to experience and I look forward to learning of the nuances and subtle aesthetics of Autumn and to carrying this peace and understanding into the realm of my hectic and nervous personal life. Autumn comes to us all - I am learning that it is important to look for its beauty, even if it is not the season I would choose to be experiencing.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Taking Care of Business

Apologies to anyone who might have stopped by for a cup of coffee and tea recently and a little visit. Spousal unit D. and I have been very busy. I may have mentioned that I have been chosen to accompany a group of students on a 4 month trip to Japan next September and so we have been furiously reading applications and doing interviews to try and whittle down far too many applicants to the size required by our Japanese hosts. We are both very excited about the experience, but the magnitude of the undertaking is just starting to hit home as we try to figure out who will care for our animals while we are away, how we will manage the household and how to sandwich 4 orientation meetings into our already jam-packed schedules.

In the mean time I am including an image for your entertainment. This is a photograph from the Architecture museum in Hokkaido. I love the open spaces and the clean organization of living. I know I will always live in a cluttered and hectic environment, but I dream of warm climates in houses where one can just slide open the wall and be one with nature.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

All I am Saying...

I looked out my office window a couple of days ago and saw this:

It kind of warmed the cockles of my heart.

Here is what the professionals have been doing with our ice and snow down in St. Paul. Since the skating competitions are being held here, there was a guy working on their emblem.

There is an ice sculpting contest connected with Winter carnival and although we had a eally warm day this weekend they sculptures did make it through mostly. So here are a couple of pictures of them from last Thursday. I'm not absolutely sure what this is, but it is pretty. You can't really see how shiny and sparkly the things are from the photos.

This a butterfly amongst grass and organic objects. It was a bit damaged but still very impressive.