Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Forever a "Daydream Believer"

I don't usually think twice about a celebrity passing away. Once I hear the news from a friend, read it on my Facebook feed or however else, I think for a second about it - how it happened, how their family is dealing with it - but after that the thought is gone.

Davy Jones died today. When I heard the news my mind flashed to The Pirates of the Caribbean series. "How can a fictional character have died?" Reading on, I realized something I'd forgotten for quite a few years - The Monkees.

I still listen to them on occasion. When I'm feeling blue I'll turn on "Daydream Believer" and rock out (more like sway out) to the pop number in my room, feeling my hair fall back and forth and enjoying the fluid melody. It's my own personal form of musical ecstasy - this music that is really low-key and catchy, but also uplifting and beautiful.

Davy Jones was the petite Englishman who fronted the Monkees, singing their biggest hits and making the girls swoon as they watched The Monkees TV show in which the band starred.

I didn't watch The Monkees as a kid, yet I was no stranger to their fame. When I was in elementary school I watched a lot of television. Boy Meets World reruns aired on weeknights on Disney Channel. I would sit around in my room waiting for my mom to come home, watching Cory & Topanga, Shawn & Angela, Eric & Jack (they and Cory & Shawn were my first insights into the term "bromance").

 Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz & Peter Tork on Boy Meets World.
In one episode of BMW, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork made an appearance on the show not as The Monkees but as old friends of the Matthews family. Davy played Reg, Reginald Fairfield, a guy who had basically stalked Cory's parents, Amy and Alan, around Europe. Mickey played Alan's old high school band mate and Peter was Topanga's dad who just happened to visit at the same time.

At one point, all three of the former Monkees went up on stage to perform at Amy and Alan's anniversary celebration. They sang "My Girl." My first introduction to The Monkees collided with my first experience of hearing the music of The Temptations.

I loved the music. The guys singing were older, so I didn't think much of them, but the music struck me as something different. I liked it more than what I knew from the popular culture of the '90s. While I was listening to bubblegum pop on Radio Disney, I was spending my evenings hearing The Monkees on TV, or listening to The Beatles with my dad and The Four Seasons with my mom. Oldies music was the order of the day.

When I was nine my dad took me to see The Turtles perform at California Adventure. The park was hosting small venue concerts with a bunch of older bands where they'd sing about a half a dozen songs, some huge hits, to an audience of semi-fascinated, semi-dying-of-heat-stroke children and their parents.

I loved The Turtles. At that concert I learned the song "Happy Together." Little events like that have colored my whole notion of music - they have made me realize that I feel more of a kinship in taste with the generations before mine than my own.

Over the years I'd forgotten Davy Jones. He'd become just the voice behind the music I liked, the voice I didn't think of. But when I realized that the obituary I was reading was not about Davy Jones the tentacled sea captain from Pirates and this wasn't some elaborate ruse by The Onion, I was really sad to know that this pinnacle of adorable, toe-tapping 1960's pop fame had died.

Beatles-themed graffiti at Abbey Road Studios.
It made me think about how many of my favorite musical artists are no longer around. One-half of The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, not to mention amazing composers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Rodgers & Hammerstein. There's so much talent, specifically from the era of the 1950's and 60's and a few decades before then that cease to exist. And along with them goes a lot of the interest in their music among modern generations.

Sometimes I feel really lonely out in my own world of classical Broadway, Motown, pop standards and British Invasion. When I do find other people my age who listen to these genres, I start looking at them differently - I have a higher respect for them because they share my taste for the past.

But more often than not I just become worried that those people with whom I share a mutual love for oldies will remain scarce and perhaps become even fewer as the years go on. As old records, tapes and CDs get scratched and broken, as legends of previous generations pass on and as my own generation begins to take on a more central role in mainstream culture, I become scared that the only place I'll ever really feel comfortable is a roller rink, a Broadway theater or a Johnny Rockets.

The music I want to hear is just not the interest of younger people today (note: I am a younger person, but I will never group myself together with "younger people"), and like the rare traditional folk music lover or the unique classical music connoisseur, soon I may be in such a minority that people will accuse my genres of being tired and boring, or worse: washed up.

It's nice to still have a base of people who share my opinions. My dad confirms for me that my love of 1950's and '60s pop/rock is not an unusual trait. That if he could love it then it is only natural that I could love it too.

When I listened to The Monkees a few days ago, or weeks or months even, I didn't think about the implications of my choice to listen to them instead of, say, The Black Keys, LMFAO or Lady Gaga. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew I was putting myself in the minority by choosing to listen to what I do, but it all still felt very current to me - like the '50s and '60s may have long past, but they're still very much a part of pop culture today.

But Davy Jones' passing made me re-examine this feeling. Instead of thinking that I am still in the very midst of a plethora of legends that have persisted in fame for the past half century, I've started to wonder what life will be like when those legends are no longer around. Will the music die along with them?

It extends into this bigger question for me of what life will be like when my generation is middle-aged. Will we become like our parents? Will we embrace the same things they did? Or will we become nostalgic for our own pop culture, forgetting what happened in the generations before us as if their music is better fit for history books and library archives than our own living room bookshelves and iTunes libraries.

All I know is I will never be one to forget the past. If in 40 years everyone I know is thinking back on old times and listening to Katy Perry, I'll still be dreaming about Paul McCartney in A Hard Day's Night, the adorable Peter Noone from Herman's Hermits, Bobby Rydell in Bye Bye Birdie.

Whatever happens, nothing will steal the past away from me. Not even if it becomes history.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lost in Las Vegas

Many people are born gamblers. They love the thrill of the chase, the anxiety of waiting to find out their results, the power of debilitating defeat and the ecstasy of the winning score.

I am not one of these people.

As a youngster, I went on a lot of vacations to Las Vegas. My grandma, a slot machine gambler, and my mother, an indoor mall and buffet lover, were the biggest Vegas-heads you've seen in your life. We went at least once a year - usually more than that - when I was between the ages of two and eleven.

Every trip began the same way. My grandma packed a lunch in a plastic container. Usually it contained white rice and spam (Japanese delicacies) among other "breakfast" foods. For her and my mom there was a container of coffee so they could survive the just over four hour drive from North Orange County to Clark County (home of the glittering wasteland that is Las Vegas).

On the drive, my grandma would always freak out at a certain point. As we approached this giant thermometer on the side of the road that told us how extremely hot the arid desert was, she would almost burst a lung trying to get us all to bet five dollars on our guess at the temperature.

I never bet.

"Just five dollars!" she said.

I refused.

"If you win, I'll give you five dollars!"

I knew how a bet worked. I was just not willing to risk five hard-earned bucks (my allowance was just five dollars a week) on a silly bet on temperature. Even if I won, I knew the pay off wasn't worth the risk.

Our trips to Las Vegas were interminably repetitive. In the day we would go to Circus Circus or Excalibur so I could do my own form of gambling, playing the carnival games in an indoor environment and securing us about two dozen new stuffed animals to take home and pile on my bed.

After that we'd go to perhaps Caesar's Palace or the Venetian to check out the shopping. I loved that they had indoor skylight. Because being outside in Las Vegas is like sitting in a steam room without the soothing effects of moisture, having an indoor blue sky lightly dotted with puffy clouds is a happy alternative. We'd sit down for gelato or take photos by a fountain, maybe even ride a gondola. The indoors felt like the outdoors in Las Vegas and it was grand.

Fattening buffet time would persist for an hour and then be followed by the parting of ways. My grandma, the only gambler in our three-person group, would depart for an evening of indeterminate length at the slots. By night's end she would have lost an unreasonable amount of money, claiming she had won at some point in the night and then lost track of time because she forgot to wear a watch (and casinos are notorious for not having clocks anywhere), leading her to continue to play and eventual come out in the red.

I knew I never wanted to lose track of time or get distracted by the desire to win. But then I did.

The ball-rolling camel race game at Circus Circus.
One day at Circus Circus, my grandma, mom and I were doing our rounds, playing (I must warn you now that I do not know what any of these games are called) the ball-rolling horse race games, the throw the ping-pong ball into a bowl floating on water game, the hit the balloon with a dart game and the list goes on.

After playing the let the metal ball fall into the slot game (kind of like the Japanese game Pachinko, but less mind-numbing), somehow I got distracted. Maybe I had gotten so excited from winning the game that I was busy hugging my stuffed animal prizes. Maybe the place was so loud with other demented children that I hadn't heard my mom and grandma say they were going to another booth and I'd missed them asking me to follow them.

Whatever it was, I got lost.

I was rarely lost as a child. If I was ever separated from a guardian for a time, it was because I was with another guardian who was looking out for me. No one ever left me alone in public.

But on that fateful day one summer afternoon in Las Vegas, I was one of the smallest children lost in an adult-sized playpen.

I started crying and running past people's legs. People looked at me and wondered what was wrong, but no one helped. My panic attack multiplied tenfold when I hadn't found them after about 30 seconds (in toddler time this felt more like 15 minutes).

Eventually I saw my mom and ran to her. I hugged her legs and cried.

I never wanted to take chances when I was little. It was not among my interests to get so caught up in the game that I forgot about what was going on around me.

But I did. That day, when I sat at the game booth and my grandma and mom unwittingly walked away from me, thinking I was skipping behind them teddy bear in tow, I had it reinforced for me that it's not worth it to let your mind get distracted by stupid things.

Maybe it was too metaphorical for a little three or four year old, but years later I figured out the key to my destruction that day and my subsequent attachment to stability. The benefits, you see, are never worth the losses.

When I was lost, I thought about how even the greatest ecstasies of life - at that time winning a toy - are not worth the potential for being distracted from reality. Because I had let myself think more about my teddy bear, I'd lost track of what actually mattered - my family.

It's subliminally colored every single important life-long decision I've ever made. My decision not to drink, not to smoke, not to do drugs, etc. - all based on the premise that what I do now might distract me from what matters. A little pleasure now is not worth the guilt or the loss down the line.

It may be silly to ascribe such meaning to one event in childhood. Who ever thought that being lost for all of one minute could guide a child onto a path to becoming a prudish young adult who does not partake in the "joys of college life" that her peers are so enthusiastic about.

But that is what happened. And I don't regret it for a second. Because aside from learning more about my own values, I learned what really matters most to me - not some mythical place filled with hallucinations and grandeur (I still love Las Vegas, don't get me wrong), but the here and the now, the reality of my life and my family.

In defense of Woody Allen

The first Woody Allen movie I ever saw was Small Time Crooks. I went to the theater with my mom and dad, a rare occurrence for our disjointed family, and sat through the entire movie at only seven years old.

To this day I don't remember a thing about the movie. But what I do remember is that it was my first insight into an inherited obsession, one I'll carry with me until I'm on my death bed: a love of Woody Allen.

Woody Allen with the Midnight in Paris cast. Photo from The Atlantic.
My dad has a Woody Allen and Marx Brothers marathon every New Year's Eve. He watches at least one movie from these filmmakers, creating a night of alternating mustachioed and awkward dorky Jewish comedy to entertain a five o'clock-shadowed, awkward and dorky Jewish man (a not-so-perfect description of my dad). One New Year's Eve, I decided to crash my dad's one-man party to ring in 2005 (I think it was 2005, the year is a bit fuzzy).

Together we watched Everyone Says I Love You and A Night at the Opera. I loved both. I wanted to know more about these movies, these stars, these filmmakers. But most of all, I wanted to know more about Woody Allen.

I had heard about Woody from an early age. Between my mom and myself there were a few shared obvious facts about my dad: 1. He was a vegetarian. 2. He watched The Daily Show every night ("Haha, what's The Daily Show?" my young self wondered - what did I know?). 3. He loves Woody Allen.

With this information, I had it ingrained in my head that an interest in Woody was a part of life's progress, just something that happened. But it took me a few years to embrace the inevitability.

Once I got to college I became all the more obsessed with the availability of Woody's films. All that I wanted to see was at my fingertips. Netflix and the library multimedia center offered me most (other than Bullets Over Broadway which I had to request) everything I wanted to see with Woody Allen in the credits.

I saw Play it Again, Sam, Love and Death, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway, Celebrity and Match Point. At home, my dad was giving me other Woody movies to watch like Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Mighty Aphrodite, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight in Paris.

I became an avid fan, embracing my own stumbling stutter and unsophisticated nerdy awkwardness. Woody gave me the power to enjoy being an underdog.

So even though Woody Allen was not present at the 84th Annual Academy Awards tonight, I was unbelievably excited when he won Best Original Screenplay for Midnight in Paris. This man I have long admired, with a unique writing style and a love of classic cinema, classic music, classic themes and periods, was finally receiving recognition he has long waited for since his last Academy Award in 1987 (Best Original Screenplay for Hannah and Her Sisters).

Since Hannah in 1987, Woody has directed and written 28 theater-released films, with one in the works. Of his 23 Oscar nominations, he has only won four. For Annie Hall he was recognized as Best Director as well as for Best Original Screenplay and for Hannah and Her Sisters for Best Original Screenplay again. Finally, in 2012, he has been lauded again by the Academy for a great writing achievement.

Critiques by a snooty public who claim in their best wealthy Wall Street executive voice that "Midnight in Paris was just not Allen's best work. It just does not typify his legacy. It is a sad failure in his overall repertoire" are difficult to avoid. But in the moment that Midnight in Paris won for Best Original Screenplay, I could not feel anything less than pride that one of my favorite directors and screenwriters of all time was getting recognition for his work.

And also, despite the criticism, I believe Midnight in Paris is a wonderful testament not only to the power of film location and truly inspired acting and directing, but also to the effect that a script can have on gathering your whole heart and all of your senses into the story.

I've always been a nostalgic person. I love old movies, old music, old books, old people. I long for a time when things were simpler, for La Belle Epoque of my own imagination. In Midnight in Paris, Woody tells the story of a character, Gil, who is like himself in many ways. He is a writer, he is a long-term romantic who falls victim to whimsy and visions of true love, he is obsessed with the past (Gil writes a book about a man who owns a nostalgia shop). But, like in many of Woody's other films, he also creates a cautionary tale of how dreaming can loosen your happiness within reality. If you look for satisfaction elsewhere, you may never notice it was standing right in front of you.

Adriana (Marion Cotillard) & Gil (Owen Wilson) walking the streets of Paris.
When Gil finally comes to this realization, he tries to inform his companion and confidante, a French woman (who is not his intended) named Adriana, who risks also getting sucked into a false notion of nostalgia. "Adriana," he says, "if you stay here though [in the past], and this becomes your present then pretty soon you'll start imagining another time was really your, you know, was really the golden time. Yeah, that's what the present is. It's a little unsatisfying because life's a little unsatisfying."

Many say Woody's writing was just not up to snuff in this particular film. He allegedly got so wrapped up in the sentimentalism of it all that he lost his ability to write pointedly and cleverly.

But I believe, like some of my other favorite Woody works, Midnight in Paris was the perfect example of how Woody does right by his audience. He creates a script that is not only gifted in storytelling, but does not rely on film tricks to create a powerful narrative. His writing plays out like a stage performance, gathering us into the characters and the story as if we've been sucked into our own vortex where time and space lose all meaning and all that matters is the screen and the contents of those 24 frames per second.

In my favorite Woody Allen film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody teaches us through his main character that being consumed by a movie is no way to spend a life. We watch our protagonist fall in love with a fictional leading man who jumps out of the movie screen and into her life like a flash of burning, romantic, incomprehensibly beautiful lightning.

The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris both possess storylines about the perils of getting lost in fantasy. For those of us that bask in the glory of art - and film specifically - this is something we hate hearing, but we also love to have repeated back to us. Because as much as it is a moral to the story not to become infatuated with what isn't real, these movies are also Woody's own homage to the eras, the films, the music that he loves. And in this, many of us find a piece of ourselves in Woody.

So I would endeavor to say that, even though Midnight in Paris may have come off as sappy - a far cry from Woody Allen's farcical comedies of his earlier years and a deviation from his less emotional thrillers like Match Point or Cassandra's Dream - it was one of his best scripts to date. Because besides creating the ultimate nostalgia film, it also gave us a window through which to peer at ourselves, at our hearts and at our own perceptions of life.

I am so thankful for my dad's obsession with Woody Allen. I am thankful that from an early age I always knew the name, as if it were so common as Elvis Presley or Walt Disney. Woody was a cultural symbol for me that would at first only garner moderate interest, but then turn into an enormous obsession.

In watching his movies, I learned to value the sense of voice in a script. I found further reason to embrace my own Jewish cultural heritage. I realized that my nostalgia was not unmet, even by one of the most genius auteurs of our time. And I also discovered that movies are not just our doors to other worlds, but our entryways back to ourselves, to understand our own psychologies and combat them head on.

It's been 12 years since I saw Small Time Crooks in theaters with my mom and dad. At the time I thought little of the movie. I did not value it, I did not remember it.

But now, forgetting a Woody Allen film just doesn't happen. And I realize, finally, that he truly is one of the most wonderful filmmakers in the world. And he deserves all the awards. All of them.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

215: My code to London

The phone rang and I hesitated to pick it up. When I don't recognize a number, I tend to avoid answering out of some irrational fear that the caller is a serial killer, a stalker or a solicitor trying to sell me a collection of newly minted coins. The call wasn't even from an area code I recognized. Some 215 number, wherever that is.

But I had my ringtone at full blast and I was sick of ignoring it - so I picked up.

Cheerful and friendly, the person on the other end spoke in a garbled voice. "Hi is this Ragcheck Ponsick?," the voice asked. "I'm sorry," I responded. "Who?"

I was a terrific photographer at 14.
"Rayhen Pomchick?" Still unintelligible, but I figured it out.

"Oh yes, this is she."

The news was unexpected. After I realized that the person on the other end of the conversation was, in fact, speaking English, I listened closer. But I didn't have to, because in the next instant her voice was loud and clear and telling me I had been accepted to study abroad in London this fall.

I've wanted this for a long time.

In my first few months in college, I went to the study abroad office on campus already eager to begin planning to go overseas two years later. My adviser looked at me and said, "You're a sophomore, right?" I laughed. No, I was just a very neurotic freshman.

Though most people begin planning their sophomore year to go abroad in their junior year, I was a year early - but actually I was about a year later than I intended to be.

Back in high school, I tossed around the idea of going to England for university. I met with my high school academic adviser, asking her what her advice was on the subject.

"We've never had anyone apply to colleges in the UK," she said. That was the extent of her expertise.

I swore I'd be the first. So I figured out the awesome UCAS system (which is infinitely simpler than the Common Application or any other American university app program), and went out for five UK schools. On the top of my list of colleges was this one school called University College London (UCL for short).

When I eventually decided not to spend a fortune (with no financial aid, thank you United Kingdom) to go to school en Europe, I comforted myself in knowing that by going to the school I now attend, I would still have the option of studying abroad at my dream UK school.

And my evil (okay, not so evil) plan worked.

This is what a Harry Potter poster in London looks like.
But the plan did not even necessarily begin back in senior year of high school. It was really the brain child of my 14-year-old self, just exiting my freshman year and at the time obsessed with Harry Potter. This is basically how it went down (the following text is stolen from my study abroad essay):

"At fourteen years old I sat on an airplane next to my dad, returning from a trip to visit my grandparents in Florida. For weeks I'd been considering how to go about suggesting the grandest and most ridiculous of all requests I'd ever make to him.

'Dad?' I said and took a long, pregnant pause as I tried to find the right words. 'Would you want to, um, maybe go to England at some point?'

I knew my dad was not a world traveler. Neither was he adverse to the idea of long plane rides - we'd flown the five-hour flight to Florida at least twice a year since I was a toddler. But a trip to England was something wholly different and - pardon the pun - foreign."

Four trips to London later, and I'm planning my first semi-permanent stay in the country. I have already becoming a research addict.

Before even being accepted, I went to the trouble of looking up the closest grocers and convenience shops to my school. I searched for the nearest tube station and planned where I'd go on a Friday afternoon once classes have finished - note: NOT Leicester Square.

Just thinking about it was enough to relieve me of the stress of filling out the application and putting my fate (years in the making) in the hands of a few admissions officers.

So this really has been a long time coming. But it's also just the first step on the path I've set out for myself. From here the future may not be as specific, as devised, but I know that eventually I will end up in London permanently. And for the first time I can see that plan coming to fruition.

In the end the research, the worry, the agony - it all paid off. And all I can say is: thank god I picked up that phone yesterday. 215 is now my new favorite area code.

I am a projector

"Yes, movies! Look at them - All of those glamorous people - having adventures - hogging it all, gobbling the whole thing up! You know what happens? People go to the movies instead of moving."

When I watch movies, I have a tendency of inserting myself within a story. I do not deflect any thought of my life, but instead embrace it to enhance the story with respect to my own experience. So when Tom in The Glass Menagerie recited this line about living life not for the sake of personal adventure, but to bask in others' achievements, I took great offense.

Ultimately it all comes down to one issue: I am a projector. When I think something, I tend to assume that same thought process in others even if we're clearly different people with differing values and expectations. I regard everyone as my equal, even fictional characters on TV, in the movies, in a play or a musical or a book. It doesn't matter who you are, if you exist then I've probably considered what I'd do in your shoes.

In doing so, I become less of a passive viewer of media and more of an active applier of the text to my own life. Instead of deflecting the morals of the fictional story, I use them as a reflection of my own circumstances.

While watching The Glass Menagerie I did just this. When Laura, the narrator's sister, is essentially set up with a gentleman caller who just so happens to be the one boy she's ever actually liked, I didn't feel much sympathy. Having quite a few crushes in my time, this was a character trait that was foreign to me. But when, later on, she is kissed by this gentleman caller (Jim) and then later told that he is actually "going steady" with another woman, I became so peeved that I could have exploded like a volcano. I was so ready to erupt with anger that I had to bury my face in my hands for a few seconds.

Like Laura, I've come face to face with a guy telling me to stop being timid, to fix my "inferiority complex." In trust and belief and projecting on him only feelings of compassion, I gave into the rhetoric and was hurt in the process. And in return, I wanted to punch the ridiculous sod as if he were a bag of sawdust rather than a person. It's what he deserved.

And it's what Jim deserved too. Profess your own good will however you like, but when you lead a girl on and then tell her "oh yeah, but I'm not actually interested," you should at least fall victim to fictional infliction of pain.

While watching the second act of the show, I began projecting my feelings onto Laura. I sensed a passive aggression in her nature. I could feel her pulling away from the guy, realizing that what he passed off as kindness and caring was actually a selfish need to help others.

I had stupidly projected my feelings of compassion for others onto him. He was not compassionate, he was out for personal satisfaction in helping Laura become a more experienced, well-rounded person.

My feelings of projection onto a character are not limited to The Glass Menagerie. I've felt kinship with Elphaba in Wicked as she sang "I'm Not that Girl" about feeling like the underdog who will never find true love. I've sympathized with Jane Austen in feeling like I lived in a world that didn't recognize my own strength and conviction as a woman.

When I was around age 11, I read a book called Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. At the time I was dealing with my mom's stroke which had affected her personality as well as her physical and mental health. I connected with the autobiographical verse that the author wrote. Eventually I wrote her a note thanking her for giving me a cathartic outlet for my own feelings of loss and anger.

I have this very strong tendency to read into things and connect them back to myself. It is my firm belief that we are all selfish creatures on this planet, so this is not an unusual trait. However self-less we claim to be, each and every one of us is participating in a game of survival and pursuit of happiness. We live for our own benefit and personal understanding.

So when I watch movies, plays, television or read books - I'm actually using my own experience to color my understanding of the media I'm consuming. Letting personal context guide my thought process, I make general assumptions about characters - using life experience to project meaning into a story.

And this relationship is cyclical. I learn about a text by using my own personal experience as a guide, but this is balanced out by a use of media texts to interpret my own daily life outside of a theater.

There are so many amazing quotes dedicated to this notion. Modern day philosophers profess that the spectator lives inside his dreams rather than throwing himself into reality. But these dreams, whether they be literal night visions or taken in the form of media that consumes your mind (like TV, film, theater, etc.), are not the time and life-sucking demons that a lot of great authors characterize them as.

One of my favorite quotes from Harry Potter is in the Sorcerer's Stone when Dumbledore tells Harry as he looks into the Mirror of Erised, "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that."

Albus has a point. It's a dangerous game to play when you let your goals, fantastic and perhaps self-centered, guide your decision-making. But what every great quote omits is the concept that perhaps the dreams themselves are a reflection on the life that you are living.

Watching plays and thinking of the character as a reflection of myself is in direct correlation with real-life experiences. Without living a life of your own, you are less apt to make those determinations about a story.

So instead of a negative correlation, let's see this as positive. When we experience life outside of a theater, we're giving ourselves more material to work with when we interpret a new play, movie, song, poem, etc.

Sure, lives in the movies are fantastic and seem undeniably wonderful. Getting sucked in is a risk. But getting sucked in is also about becoming part of the story, using yourself to project onto characters. And maybe it's just me, but that's not something I feel hindered by.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Thursday in the life

Because I'm lazy, tired and it's officially past 1 am on Friday, I feel it is my duty to treat myself kindly and compose a blog post that is short and concise enough that I can crank it out without wasting time I should be spending preparing for bed. Here it goes:

Since I started writing this blog/journal/whatever it is, I've grown pretty ridiculously attached to it. Every night before it's too late (or sometimes after it's already too late and I'm just feeling extra pressure), I try to think of some huge topic that I can comment on in my blog. It's like an informal New Year's Resolution for me. I needed structure and I needed an outlet, and I've given it to myself in the form of a daily rambling blog that I hope can come off as slightly insightful.

But one thing I've set out from the beginning to is to avoid writing a blog about my day. "Who cares what I do every day?," I thought.

I still think that. My life at school is not tremendously exciting. If I wrote about it once a week, you can be sure that every week I would probably repeat the posts of the week before, tweaking to include due dates for assignments and the different plays I see on weekends.

But right now I'm going to change it up. I will tell you about my day. My Thursday. Just this once (unless I find myself deprived of time in the future and feel like detailing another day of my week). Rest assured it is simply out of necessity.

7:15 AM - Alarm goes off and I'm ready to start the day - in five minutes. I turn on my television and my lamp, lighting my room in a bright yellow tint that refuses to let me fall back into REM sleep.

7:45 AM - Off to the dining hall for breakfast, I listen to "Mamma Mia!," grooving to the beat and carefully checking my peripheral vision to make sure no one is around to see me lip syncing.

8:30 AM - Call my dad. This is a daily routine, much like the 7:15 AM wake-up. Today was unusual because my dad had been awake for a couple of hours, but usually this is his morning wake-up call in which he's so drowsy that he inevitably erases any bright-eyed vigor I had after having breakfast and turns me back into a sleep-deprived zombie.

9:30 AM - After dilly-dallying around my room for an hour, I've arrived at my first class where I sit half asleep, half daydreaming while my professor talks about the method of production of alcoholic beverages (I'm Miss Sober USA, so this does not interest me as much as it does everyone else in my class). I'm in a sleepy stupor and therefore retain no information, but manage to type it all up and search "absinthe" on Google Images like the good student I am.

12:20 PM - By now I've been through two classes and I'm on my way to lunch. Instead of "Mamma Mia!," I've turned to Michael Bublé to fill my daily quota of tenor crooning. Couldn't live without it.

1:00 PM - After lunch I rush to class with my friend Susan and we enjoy two more hours of education while I proceed to pinch myself to refrain from falling asleep after only getting five hours of complete rest last night.

3:00 PM - Off from class for the day, I relax in my room like a bed (if I only had a couch) potato, keeping my eyes peeled (get it?) and focused on the computer. Despite nothing interesting happening on the internet, I'm captivated. This is not an unusual problem.

6:00 PM - I've managed to waste three hours of time and now I'm off to dinner. A burrito and stale vegan chocolate cake. This is dining at its finest.

8:00 PM - Watching The Office, I prepare to write a scathing (actually quite complimentary) review of tonight's episode. But in my heart I consider how much I'd rather be watching and critiquing 30 Rock.

10:00 PM - I attend a skit and improv comedy show with friends, dance like a fool and write a weird quote on paper. Hours of laughter funnel into an evening of calm and wasted time.

12:00 AM - Serious conversation time with Dana degenerates into "omg he's so cute" time with Dana. We digress. We squeal like chipmunks eating puppy chow.

1:28 AM - I finally finish writing this blog. Somehow the account of my day is wrapped up quite neatly and I feel like a failure for having such an uneventful life that it can be summarized in the form of a list of a dozen designated times with short, uninteresting blurbs attached to each one. What has life become?

I hope the inevitable boredom that reading this has caused you leaves you with a sense of satisfaction. Where my life outside of my writings is mundane and repetitive, perhaps you live one of excitement and adventure (of danger lurking around every corner).

Even when I'm lazy, I feel the necessity of sticking to my goals. This blog is my goal. My words may not always be fascinating, but they'll always serve some purpose for me - if only to reinforce my own impulse to share even when there is nothing to share.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When I grow up I want to be a...

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I always wonder what children's most common answer to this age old question is. When we're sitting in our elementary school classrooms, what do we dream to be? The stereotypical answer for a boy is a fireman, astronaut or something equally courageous and extraordinary. But what do girls want to be? What is our version of "fireman" or "astronaut"?

From about the ages seven to nine, I was determined to be a veterinarian. I grew up with an excessive number of pets (four cats, one dog and eventually an evil hamster) and always considered myself an animal lover. But around age five or six, I'd gone to a doctor to test my allergies which were causing me to have breathing problems fairly regularly.

He told me I was allergic to the pet dander of cats and dogs. Still, I remained determined to be a vet for several years, even if it meant sneezing up a storm every time I entered a patient's room. But over time, I realized the watery eyes and runny nose did not constitute an equitable trade-off to the satisfaction of dealing with animals on a daily basis. I needed something more lucrative, something that made more sense.

Instead of the impractical, unachievable goal of being a veterinarian, I settled on a new, more reasonable plan: I would be a star.

One can assume that at some point in our lives, many of us XX-chromosomed individuals have ruminated on aspirations of pop-stardom. Watching Disney Channel until my eyes bled and listening to Hilary Duff sing about boys being "So Yesterday" and asking "Why Not" take a crazy chance, I knew that I was destined to sing in front of half-stadium crowds with a jeweled microphone, dressed in a crop top and bedazzled bell-bottoms.

I even dressed the part. For any mother, I feel it is my duty to extend the very important and unbreakable rule of never allowing your daughter to purchase a cropped halter or tube top. Even if it is in vogue, this is not a good childhood fashion choice. From personal experience, exposing my chubby baby fat belly to the world was not the proudest moment of my life. Maybe if my mom had heard this rule before enabling me to buy those ugly shirts at WalMart, I would not have the disturbing photos to prove that I had no nine-year-old fashion sense.

One very fortunate day, I looked in a mirror and realized that the cropped top chubster look was just not me. I was smarter than that. I was "gift and talented" (thank you GATE program for instilling these conceited values in me). I could do better than pursuing pop stardom and looking like a cheap baby harlot in the process.

But I was in a state of indecision. I'd given up the two best career options for me. I was not going to be treating sick animals, I was not going to be singing and selling millions of albums around the world. What other options did I have? The future seemed bleak.

I bounced around from idea to idea for a while. When I met my best friend, Tori, I toyed with stealing her idea of becoming a doctor. One Halloween, I even went to the trouble of buying scrubs and a stethoscope and proclaiming I wanted to be a pediatrician.

But I don't enjoy biology and I'm a germaphobe and a relative hypochondriac, so I realized that would not work out.

Then I considered maybe becoming a lawyer. In middle school we had a career day where we heard from various professionals about their jobs and career paths. After hearing a female lawyer speak, I started growing more interested in law. I confused myself on the real nuts and bolts of the profession, determining that if I came up with similar arguments as lawyers in movies, I would definitely have the chops to be an awesome lawyer.

One night, I was watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Try as I might to forget this movie, I remember that in between the scariest horror scenes of all time, there were moments of court drama. At one point, I predicted what the lawyer would use as evidence. I thought I was a genius. The Doogie Howser of law. If anything could confirm that I was meant to defend people in court, this was it.

I was wrong.

I am the most non-confrontational person you will ever meet. I hate arguing, much less fighting or trying to win a battle. If I really worked hard, sure, I might be able to put on an act and be a good lawyer - but it's certainly not an inherent aspect of my nature.

Not long after the career day spiel, I started watching Gilmore Girls. The main character, Rory, was determined to be the next Christiane Amanpour, traveling around the globe to report hard-hitting journalism that would have an effect on our sheltered and shortsighted United States.

I loved the ambition. Suddenly, a career I hadn't even considered became the most amazing sounding path for me. I wanted to be a reporter. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be Rory Gilmore.

Just like I had loved and aspired to be like Hilary Duff years before, my middle school self was ready to fill the shoes of another idol (even though this one was fictional). Rory was so intelligent and put together. Maybe, I thought, if I pursue journalism I will be just as intelligent and productive as her.

Needless to say, Rory Gilmore is not real. And I have never come close to reaching her level of success - reading Gogol's Dead Souls while she was in diapers or what not. I was always of just above average intelligence. And my ambition of being like Rory Gilmore, and by extension being like Christiane Amanpour, eventually waned.

But I stuck with the goal of being published.

I ascribe most of my success in journalism to one person: my high school mentor and newspaper adviser, Ms. Cummings. Before I even arrived in high school, she enlisted me to join her journalism class - talking with my dad in their respective cars outside my middle school at the end of the day.

Instead of taking biology in ninth grade (by this time I'd thrown both veterinarian and pediatrician out the window), I tacked on an elective: journalism. I studied all the basics of journalistic writing: how to construct a good lead, hard news coverage, sports reporting, feature writing and film reviewing.

I got A's on everything. If I had any inkling that this was not the path that I was meant to take, Ms. Cummings drilled it out of my brain, convincing me that I could do any type of writing I set my mind to.

The next year I joined the staff of my high school newspaper. I contributed primarily to the Entertainment and (mainly political) Opinion sections. At the end of the year I applied to be editor of either section.

When Ms. Cummings gave me the role of Entertainment Editor, I was both excited and slightly disappointed. At this point in my writing career I'd felt that political journalism was my forte and my highest goal. I wanted to be Rachel Maddow, minus the boy haircut.

But what Ms. Cummings saw in me was a proclivity for writing about the arts that I had yet to see in myself. I'd forgotten that during my time in her journalism class in my freshman year, my favorite assignments had been the movie reviews. I loved writing my opinion about art. And even better, I was good at it.

Now I'm at university studying journalism. Growing disenfranchised with traditional styles of reporting, I've endeavored to do primarily opinion writing outside of class. And most, if not all, of my writing is entertainment-based.

While I have written a couple of articles regarding political issues, over time I've realized that the level of polarization in political coverage, just like the necessity of argument called for by law, is just not me. It's like the tube tops of my youth: I realized I needed something different.

Early on in life I considered stereotypical women's job roles. I toyed with career choices that involved families and pets. I thought about taking on a very anti-feminist role and pursuing a career as a performer (sure, like that would've worked out). A few years later I switched to feminist job roles. I wanted to be a woman lawyer or a reporter at the front wearing camouflage and a helmet.

But once I came to terms with who I am and with what I want out of life, I realized a better-suited goal. With feminist strength in the back of my head and feminine tendencies floating around as well, I decided I wanted to be a film or theater critic.

I see nothing wrong with pursuing goals that fit gender roles. There are plenty of amazing male firemen and astronauts, female veterinarians and pediatricians. Even for the opposite genders these are great careers. But my middle ground is something that took me more than a decade to come to terms with. When I grow up, I want to have a career that represents me. A career that I love. A career that makes me feel like it's all worth it. It may have taken a while, but I found it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Remembering when the grass turned brown

Before I boarded my flight back home from my freshman year of college, my dad told me something he'd been keeping from me since September the year before. "Your uncle thought that by the time you were done with your first year, you'd want to go to a different school," he said. Apparently, thinking I was fickle for visiting one of the two schools I was most likely to attend and then soon after choosing to go to the other made my uncle think I was unsure of my decisions, unstable in making life choices.

At the time I was hurt. While I powered through my first year of college, hearing this testimony from my dad about a conversation he'd had with his brother made me think that instead of having my extended family root for me to do well, they were just waiting until I changed my mind and dropped the ball.

That kind of pressure is the worst. And it has made me re-examine myself in other ways.

While I try to avoid labeling myself as a "grass is greener on the other side" type, in some ways my uncle hit on something that is most definitely a part of my character.

"Someone once told me that grass is much greener on the other side."
Every quarter at school I think back on the last one, remembering how things were simpler then and wishing I could go back to several months before and not have to do what I'm doing now. I fail to realize that retrospect provides a much more glorified view of the past. What seems easy now is only so on the basis of false appearances because at the time it wasn't easy at all.

This quarter at school, I'm taking four academic classes that all require pretty extensive reading, essay-writing and test-taking. While in the beginning of winter I had quite a few breaks and time off, I soon settled into a routine of splitting up copious amounts of reading with the occasional leisure article on the New York Times, followed by an evening of studying.

I think back to last quarter. Only taking three classes and surviving by only doing the readings for two out of the three, I was in the lap of luxury. At least it seems like that now. But my time last quarter was one of the hardest of my life.

Grappling with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, cramming all of my work into single evenings just to feel the satisfaction of being done and meanwhile waking up feeling depressed in the mornings because I was dealing with personal emotional issues, I'd venture to say this quarter has been a step up if not an entire flight up from where I was a few months ago.

But I still look at the past like some beacon of greatness.

In my children's media culture class, we recently talked about this notion that life a few decades ago was significantly safer than it is now. Parents used to let their children play in the streets on a Saturday afternoon without chaperones, or allow their urban kiddies to take the subway to the cinema without a second thought. But now there is this idea that the world is a much scarier place, even though statistics show that crime rates have not increased since those stereotypical "childhood golden years."

People have this tendency to look at the past and idealize it to the point of distortion. I once read somewhere that if you frequently recall a memory, you actually distort it every time you do so, making it even further from the truth than something that happened much longer before that you've only thought of once or twice.

I've thought a lot about last quarter. About restless nights and terrible mornings. About feeling overwhelmed with even a small amount of work. About absolutely needing time to waste watching QI or eating ice cream and listening to The Little Mermaid. But by overthinking the past and glossing over these moments of disruption, I've actually managed to forget how very terrible it was.

It's like ruminating on a relationship post-break-up. You start off feeling all the negative emotions that keep you from wanting to ever interact with that person again. Then the next minute, you've forgotten what it was you were angry about and instead start reminding yourself about all the good it was. You've selected only what you want to remember, even if that selection is not representative of the whole truth.

At the end of last year, I struggled. I picked myself up out of a slump, managed to get a 4.0 that quarter and went home for break feeling renewed. But just because I ended 2011 with a better outlook on life doesn't mean that those months before can be erased and replaced with happier thoughts. If anything, that's the worst choice to make.

In an ideal world our memories would be honest, kept in place no matter how many times we remember them. We wouldn't think back on our pasts and believe they were somehow infinitely better than reality. But in the real world it's not so easy to maintain truth and objectivity.

My uncle was very wrong about me wanting to leave the college I'd chosen. He was wrong in assuming I would change my mind and be fickle about my choices. But he was right in one way - I do idealize situations. I am, at heart, an optimist, and sometimes the grass really does seem greener on the other side, on the side of history. But the real truth lies in a further examination, when you finally realize that same grass went from green to brown quite quickly. And it's important not to forget that second half of the story.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why is there bacon mixed in with these potatoes? and other concerns

When I was a kid one of my favorite meals was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. On summer afternoons I'd beg my dad to make me half a box of the synthetic powdered cheesy pasta and I'd sit around on the couch watching Nickelodeon or Disney Channel as I consumed the unhealthy contents of my lunch.

But I didn't eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese like everyone else. A bowl of the stuff was not enough to satisfy me. My dad somehow got me into the habit of including MorningStar Farms Sausage Links as a side dish to my wonderfully unnatural and chemically enhanced meal.

So a few years down the road when I became a vegetarian, I already knew what alternatives there were to meat. I was already a fan and while in some ways the transition was strange and foreign, perhaps it was significantly easier for someone like me rather than, say, someone who comes from a family made up entirely of omnivores. Even though I lacked will power in general, I certainly had prepared my taste buds for this defining moment of my life.

My dad has been a vegetarian since as far back as I can remember and it never bothered me in the slightest. When I was little, he allowed me to eat whatever I wanted. He would buy me cold cuts to make school lunches with. He drove me to In-N-Out to rot my insides with a burger and fries. He let me get the Meat Lovers' pasta at Spaghetti Factory. He never once forced abstinence from meat into my mind or my diet.

I didn't really think about what the value was in going veggie until I was 17 or so. I had just finished reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. The main character of the book is Oskar Schell who is a hippie dippy young boy who self identifies as a vegan, tambourine playing pacifist. I've always been very liberal so the idea of this little boy being the Haight-Ashbury prototype child was an appealing image to me.

It wasn't until I read Foer's next book, Eating Animals, that I would try my own hand at being that tree-hugging, animal-loving person that people look at weirdly when she asks if the potatoes have bacon bits mixed in. The book opened up my eyes to the world of factory farming, of inhumane treatment of animals who are force fed hormones and kept in unhealthy, terrifying conditions and then eventually shipped off after premature growth for mechanized slaughter.

There was one page in particular that struck me. The book, no bigger than an 8.5x11 piece of paper explained that factory farms house chickens in cages no larger than the space on a single page. The animals are stuffed together like sardines in a can. But the difference between sardines and these chickens is one very crucial thing - these chickens are alive.

I started to feel sick at the idea that I was contributing in some way, however small, to letting these farms continue to exist. By buying Tyson meats and eating McDonald's hamburgers, I wasn't exactly creating the problem, but I wasn't helping either. I was egging it on through ignorance and indifference.

By the time I was 18, I had become a full-fledged vegetarian. Though I still grappled with the fact that meat didn't fully repulse me, I knew that for me the costs outweighed the benefits of a carnivorous life. I needed to know I wasn't a part of what was going on behind closed doors at farms around the country.

So when I came to college, I was elated to find that the dining halls and places around my campus were very vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Coming from an Orange County background, I was virtually alienated from anyone (other than my dad and my close friends) who thought vegetarianism was a legitimate way of life.

But I was kind of wrong in my initial views of my dietary life at school. While my friends are all incredibly accepting of my lifestyle choices, I've come in regular contact with individuals who instead of being open to ideas other than theirs about food and farming, combat it head on by being crude and insensitive.

For me, vegetarianism is a life choice. It is part of my path towards overall kindness and pacifism, an extension of my belief in fair treatment of all creatures - human or not. I never decided to do this for status or recognition. I didn't make the choice because it was the zeitgeist or because all my friends were doing it.

And because it is a life choice, I've never been one to indoctrinate others. While I am known to at times make a passing comment as to how the scent of a certain meat product bothers me, or perhaps the irony of purported humanitarians going from aiding life one minute to eating it the next, I have never endeavored to convert anyone.

My dad gave me the freedom to make my own dietary choices when I was young and I made them. I ate meat for the first 17 years of my life with no consequences and no remorse. But he also gave me the freedom to learn about my choices myself and therefore become even more passionate about my choice to abstain from meat-eating. It's the fact that I was let loose to formulate my opinions that made me want to make this choice all the more.

But unlike my dad, a lot of society (and some of my school) basks in their own carnivorous tendencies and in doing so become zealots and preachers of their cause.

One day in my biology class this quarter, my professor asked the class if we thought our dinners the night before had been balanced and if not, then why. One jock (I'm stereotyping, but he seemed pretty athletic) raised his hand and went on a tangent about how the dining halls on campus had so much tofu and "gross" vegan food, and sometimes he couldn't find enough meat for dinner.

I held my tongue in that instant, but as soon as I got out of class I had to call my dad and go on my own mini-tangent about the selectively blind viewpoint of this annoying boy in my bio class. If you look at the USDA's MyPlate initiative diagram, you will notice that not even a quarter of the plate is dedicated to protein. So disregarding the sheer stupidity of Mr. Jock's comment that he couldn't find meat (there is absolutely always meat in the dining hall except on the rare (single) occasion that we had a special vegan dinner), his suggestion that he couldn't find "enough" was even more of a falsehood. Factoring in the protein in other parts of his meal, from eggs to beans and legumes and otherwise, he was surely getting his necessary amount of protein for the day, not even counting the big slab of meat that probably graces his daily plate. The dining hall was not depriving him of a healthy diet. The only thing he was deprived of was an awareness of the food pyramid.

This boy, coupled with the many individuals who have jokingly poked at me by either waving a slab of turkey in front of my face, talking about how much they love meat or killing animals, or something less flamboyant, have all proved that the real indoctrinators are not the vegetarians at all.

The people I know, from my dad to a few of my friends, who have dabbled in vegetarianism are some of the least assuming eaters I know. They make healthy food choices and allow themselves to conform to the desires of others in choosing restaurants. They find options. They eat whatever is available to them on the menu.

But some people on the opposite end of the spectrum, those who might call themselves "meatetarians" if the word existed, become inherently cruel and rude at the dinner table. Instead of keeping to themselves, they glorify their own "free will"-enabled decision to partake in the flesh of animals. Even ask these people to go to a vegan restaurant and they shudder, or worse, laugh.

I don't have any problem with people making the decision to continue to eat meat. I would never try to force anyone into making dietary decisions based on my beliefs because I understand that priorities differ from person to person. No one should be expected to want to be vegetarian and no one should be forced into it.

But in return, at the very least, I expect the same respect paid to me by those who do eat meat. If someone I was friends with was repulsed by mushrooms or olives - or on a food-unrelated level, offended by an issue or a physical object - I would never wave it in their face like a symbol of my pride at not feeling the same way they do.

My dad never waved vegetables in front of me. And in return, I respected him for his choice to refrain from eating meat. We survived by the motto of "live and let live," allowing ourselves to co-exist with different values and accommodating each other's choices with kindness and courtesy.

A decade ago, I loved eating macaroni and cheese with soy sausage links. I opened my mind to the possibilities of dietary choice, and to the fact that meat-eating is not a fact of life. But long before that, I had made the decision to open my mind to a greater cause - the cause of mutual respect. And above anything else, I believe this is one moral expectation that no one should be exempt from, vegetarian or not.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Spring Awakening: The musical I know well

Yesterday I wrote about how many times I've seen Spring Awakening. The show, about teenagers coming of age in late 19th century Germany, follows about two dozen characters with a focus on a girl, Wendla Bergman, and two boys, Melchior Gabor and Moritz Stiefel. As we follow their stories, we find out about the terrible ramifications of a restrictive society run by overly protective parents and authoritarian educators who won't allow children to express themselves, much less learn about what their thoughts and choices might entail.

This show is one of the most influential and important musicals in my life (and in the world, if I have any say). It addresses important issues from teenage sexuality to pregnancy to abuse, all within two amazing music-filled hours and it was all written by a man who died nearly 100 years ago. Yet somehow it is still incredibly relevant and powerful today. In 2006,  Spring Awakening won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, but a century ago the original play written by Frank Wedekind, a German playwright, came close to being taken off the stage, banned from general audiences.

Ironically, the enemies within the play were represented directly by those who attempted to silence Wedekind's work in its early days. The show is primarily about the blindness of humanity and the unwillingness to address human facts and problems. In the third song of the show, Melchior Gabor sings "All they say is trust in what is written. Wars are made and somehow that is wisdom. Thought is suspect and money is their idol and nothing is okay unless it's scripted in their Bible."

The same temperance and feigned purity that Wedekind suggested is the cause for all that is wrong in society is what kept his play from being heard by a mass audience until the new millennium. And until recently, because of rules and laws governing the stage and the presentation of official versus non-equity performances of plays, Spring Awakening had only one well-known stage interpretation.

But after seeing my school's version of this play which I've already seen over half a dozen times, I think I am apt to make judgments as to why Spring Awakening is so successful in its original incarnation, and perhaps what value I spotted within this new version.

The problem off-stage

The first thing that struck me about this new interpretation of Spring Awakening was that two of the most integral players of the show were kept completely off-stage throughout the performance (as well as primarily in the dark). The Adult Man and Adult Woman take on several roles in the show, from mothers and fathers of various characters to voices on the educational hierarchy at the school that the students attend. Because these two very important players were not making physical appearances in the story, dimensions of the play were lost.

In an early scene where Wendla and her mother are having a conversation about "where babies come from," the mother speaks in a stern voice to Wendla about "loving her husband with her whole heart." But not for a moment does she provide comfort to Wendla or express to the audience the awkwardness of the "birds and the bees" talk.

In the original production, Wendla rests her head upon her mother's lap (which her mother covers with her skirt so she can pretend not to be talking to her young daughter), and the scene is made more comedic as a result. But this newer interpretation lost the strength of comedy as well as drama.

Additionally, later scenes show Moritz's strained interactions with his father and professor (who yell at him repeatedly), but in this version we never see these interactions become personal and visceral. We never become involved because all the interactions seem hypothetical and impersonal.

And most disappointing was, when Moritz dies in the second act, his father does not attend the funeral (since he is still off-stage). The original version of the play gives his father more compassion and sympathy as a character as he kneels down at Moritz's grave and weeps from his own guilt.

Keep a straight face

In initial Spring Awakening adaptations, stage seats were set up on either side where fans and actors sat and co-mingled during the performance. Actors would go from being a direct part of the action to sitting next to a member of the audience, and the most notable thing about their performance was their ability to remain stoic throughout an entire show when they were not called upon to be part of a scene.

But in the version I saw today, the actors seemed to have been encouraged to react from off-stage to what was occurring on-stage. They grimaced and gasped along with the audience in response to the storyline.

I cannot wrap my head around the value of this. Was it supposed to cue an emotional reaction in the audience? Was it supposed to help us understand how to feel? Because all it did was provide some confusion as to who was actually involved in certain scenes in the show.

Most notably, during Moritz's suicide, several actors surrounding the stage shuddered and made dejected faces. But I understood that when a gunshot sounded and a character died that it was the natural response to be sad. The stoicism in the original run of Spring Awakening showed character restraint and objectivity during certain scenes. Instead of confusing boundaries of presence and non-presence, it firmly divided characters based on their witnessing scenes.

With actor reactions from off-stage, not only was I distracted by their movements and expressions, but I was bothered by the fact that this seemed to undermine the story - it took away from the singularity of certain scenes where individuals were supposed to shine out from the ensemble.


I may have not been utterly ecstatic by the omission of a physical presence for the Adult Man and Adult Woman. And I may have been annoyed by the overt expressions of actors when they were no part of a scene. But there were small decisions that made all the difference to my interpretation of this new Spring Awakening.

Though Wendla's outrageous anger and screaming at times felt forced and eardrum-piercing, it was pleasing to hear her character become less of a puppet. She was strong-willed with personal conviction and anger at society just like Melchior. Their kindred spirit relationship, no matter how annoying at times, made more sense in this adaptation. Instead of her voice emanating calm and quiet desperation, it sang of horrors and terrors and dissatisfaction.

And messages ran strong through the whole show.

In the very end of this interpretation of Spring Awakening, rather than just setting up the actors to sing "The Song of Purple Summer" in a long single-file line (which is a powerful scene in its own right), there was a portion of the song during which the actors walked around and removed part of the stage floor which covered patches of grass. They showed that where there had been plain green turf, there were now beds of flowers.

Symbolism ran rampant in this version of a show that is already rich in deeper verbal and emotional meaning. But it was executed so well that it made Spring Awakening feel even more real despite occasional falters from the original that were cause for concern.

Ultimately, this musical was not the worst adaptation in history. It stuck true to the script, to the themes, to the characters and to the music. It took liberties, but none that made it unpalatable. And while (with my extensive experience with Spring Awakening), I end up making terribly thorough a scientific analysis about what minutia made one version better over the other, the real comment to make is how even when there are subtle changes to this show, it's still one of the best ever to grace the Broadway stage. But regardless of the stage, any chance to see it is worth the opportunity.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Lullaby of Broadway: My best (weirdest) moments of theater-going

Being a theater geek is part of my genetic make-up. My dad grew up going to the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall and musicals on Broadway as a youngster, my mom played The Phantom of the Opera on tape in the car whenever she got a chance and my sister starred in productions in high school and college like Pirated Penzance and The Mikado.

It became almost a necessity for me to at least appreciate the craft of play-going, and more specifically musical-going. But I didn't just appreciate it, I embraced it. I attacked it head on.

I became infatuated.

And over the years I've accumulated some favorite moments of my theater-going experiences, some of which I will make you privy to today - regardless of how weird they make me sound. Then maybe I will stop having friends ask me why I enjoy going to shows so much and instead get them to dish out at least $5 to partake in some of the most fun and worthwhile entertainment that we have available to us.

1. Spring Awakening - The girl who knew too much

Spring Awakening at the Novello Theatre in London.
I have seen Spring Awakening many times since first catching it in London. On visiting Chicago for the first time, I decided that in between interviewing at and touring various schools, I'd take an evening off with a friend and her family to watch this musical that I'd grown passionate (and obsessive) about.

Sitting in the theater waiting for the show to start, my friend and I struck up a conversation with a girl seated in the row in front of us. "I've seen this show 17 times," she said. I looked at her incredulously, wondering how someone could see a show more than a dozen times. Then I realized, I've seen Wicked at least a dozen times, occasionally with multiple viewings in the same week. And the craziness didn't seem so outrageous to me anymore.

A great musical is one that you want to explore in depth - to see a million times over so you can learn the intricacies, recite the lines, know the lyrics by heart and feel like you're among the characters.

I went on to see Spring Awakening nearly seven or so times myself - tomorrow making it eight or so - and now 17 doesn't seem like an unrealistic number. An amazing musical is like a wonderful song or a terrific movie - recurrence is a luxury that you just can't resist.

2. Aladdin - Have I seen you before?

Hello there, Al.
Over the last several years, I've seen Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular at California Adventure at least 50 times with no exaggeration. My friends and I, in the eternal quest to see our favorite Aladdin perform the role (they juggle times among at least three or four different actors), would attend several shows a day, waiting until that fateful moment when the spotlight shone on Aladdin - up in a window above the stage - and we could either grunt like disappointed children waiting for their turn at the water fountain or squeal like those same children during snack-time.

One day we managed to grab great seats (thanks to my running skills) at Aladdin. An employee came up to us and asked "Hey, have I seen you around here before?" That's when we realized we had a problem.

Sometimes theater can go from hobby to insanity, and sometimes it takes an usher to remind you that seeing the same show 100 times won't make the actors fall madly in love with you. We learned our lesson, yet we still see the show every few Disney visits.

3. Xanadu - I don't need your breath in my ear

It may sound strange, but some of the fondest memories are also the weirdest experiences I've had as a theater attendee. A couple of years ago, my dad and I bought tickets to see Xanadu from stage seats (a group of seats located on the sides of the stage that are slightly lower priced than regular seats). We became part of the show, given glowsticks and instructions about how to behave during the performance.

But leave it to the actors themselves to fudge things up. As one roller-skating ensemble member made his way onto the stage, he very coyly whispered in my ear. To this day, I could not tell you what he said, but I can very accurately explain the feeling of having warm air blown into my ear.

I couldn't help but react viscerally. Jumping from the surprise and disgust at having some stranger's mouth so close to my ear, I likely grimaced for the entire audience to see. Strange as the experience was, it was a highlight of what was already a pretty zany and amazing show - and it was also proof why being an active member of the on-stage audience is much more entertaining than being static in the floor seats.

4. Jersey Boys - Thank you for leaning

The worst thing about theater-going is tall people. While I know genetics are uncontrollable and therefore extend my apologies to incredibly tall individuals, this doesn't lessen the fact that in the theater they are the absolute bane of my existence.

When I saw Jersey Boys in London with my dad a few years ago, we were sitting within the first ten rows. Typically, these seats can't be defeated - even if Bigfoot himself decided to plop himself down in the seat in front of us. But leave it to the Gods of theater-going to send me the tallest of all tall people to sit in front of me on that fateful rainy London afternoon.

He was a teenager, probably about the same age as I was at the time. As he sat I made a disappointed face to my dad, but said nothing. But unlike many before him, this boy was the most considerate person ever in the world. Sincerely.

As soon as the show began, he ducked down in his seat - making himself even smaller than the very short people around him. He remained that way for the entirety of the performance and during the bows and standing ovations at the very end - when he saw he was blocking my view behind him - he leaned down again in his seat.

Rarely do you find someone who, even without rude prompting, is willing to put themselves in an awkward, even seemingly uncomfortable position to improve your situation. So whoever you were, tall boy, I thank you.

5. Billy Elliot - Merry kinship, Maggie Thatcher

My final favorite moment also occurred in London a few years ago, when I saw Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre. My dad and I scored second row aisle seats to this show, some of the best seats that I've ever had (in a small theater too)!

Sitting in orchestra (or the stalls, as the English call it) is something I've always preferred when going to see plays. Though prices run high, the value of being more involved in the action and story can be worth the extra money.

In Billy Elliot there is a song that the protesting coal miners sing called "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher." The song is accompanied by giant demonic puppets depicting the widely hated (at least among Labour & Lib Dems) Conservative Prime Minister. And the audience, whom I guess were primarily liberal, were in a tizzy over the spectacle.

It was one of the most significant moments of theater for me - being among people who shared a cultural identity and getting to enjoy and laugh with them, falling into the themes of the show as if they were part of true life instead of in a separate reality on the stage.

A couple of years down the road, I went to see Billy Elliot in Chicago with my dad. As we sat in the balcony, I could not wait for "Maggie Thatcher" to come on and get the entire audience laughing and clapping. Maybe it was the historical illiteracy of the audience or maybe it was the higher seats, but for some reason the reaction just wasn't the same. Maggie was met with little to no laughter and polite, but not appreciative, applause.

The greatest part about theater is feeling like you're part of a community of people who are as impassioned by the medium as you are. I've been to plenty of shows where even sitting in the audience felt painful because the audience reaction was so sub-par. I could feel the audience judging, but not treating the cast well.Yet when I have found myself amidst a group of people who love theater like I do, or at least understand its purpose, I've come to love going to shows even more than I already do.

The joys of omnipresence

I'm incredibly lucky to go to a university with one of the best theater programs in the country. I attend shows regularly, increasing my knowledge of musical and play history to an extent that I had not nearly reached in high school.

Though my favorite moments in the theater have all occurred in professional productions around the world, some of the best experiences have been getting to enjoy the work of budding young actors at only $5 a ticket.

I was raised in a family that coveted art and live entertainment. I attended my first musicals before I was even enrolled in elementary school. This was a plan set out for me 15 years ago and I've never looked back. I've never felt that the hours I've spent sitting in a theater have been a waste.

If it is right to ascribe meaning to anything in life, then the enjoyment of certain mediums is certainly a deserving aspect. A decade and a half will tell that theater-going really can be one of the most amazing experiences, from acquainting you with other fanatics around the country to finding the good in strangers to feeling a part of a community of people who have like interests.

And to anyone who still doesn't understand, well that's your loss.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Life is a census record, old chum

Genealogy research is a passing hobby of mine. A fruitless passing hobby.

I've spent full days of my life searching through Ellis Island records and censuses of the past century. But I wasn't blessed with a family of participants in the American Revolution or immigrants from places that keep accessible census records. I am a mutt of weird origins, of a familial past that can't be found because any trace of them is difficult to find if not entirely destroyed.

I started with my paternal great-grandmother (my dad's father's mother). Knowing her birth name and her general location in Europe prior to coming to the United States in the early 1900's, I had a good basis for locating her.

Ellis Island ship records (Great Grandma, are you there?)
Searching through the Ellis Island records, I found the listing - the ship record and basic information - of who I believe was my great-grandmother. While the names of many immigrants may have been at least slightly similar, I believed I'd found her - and that satisfaction kept me searching.

My next goal was to search for my paternal great-grandfather (my dad's dad's father). His story is somewhat shrouded in mystery within our family. My dad has told me a bit about him over the years - though he also only knows the bare minimum - and with the information I had I went on a wild search for some trace of the guy.

I didn't find much.

I must have spent at least three days' time one summer looking through online records to see if I could find my great-grandfather's ship record. Though he is quite infamous within my family (having had a history of abandoning and abusing relatives), I thought maybe if I could find him I would feel like I'd completed the picture of my genealogical tree.

But after days of searching, I found not even an ounce of satisfaction. It didn't help that my name is some weird alteration of the original Polish name that my great-grandfather likely had, making the search even more of a shot in the dark.

I even went so far as to search for him through US census records. While I never located the man himself, I did find relatives in history who share my last name (a name which only immediate members of my family possess and is therefore incredibly rare). In my head I painted stories about those relatives that were no longer living, and were also completely unbeknownst to my family. I thought about my great-grandfather leaving my great-grandmother and his three sons (including my grandfather). Maybe he'd started afresh, but retained his American immigration officer-given name. Despite being cut-off from the New York side of our clan, my great-grandfather retained the mark that designated him as the head of it.

I began to hate him. While I'd already harbored great anger toward him for treating the family I love with such disloyalty over half a century ago, the added difficulty of locating his history made me even more upset. He'd made himself virtually untraceable, stopping me in the path towards a general self-understanding that I believed I'd obtain through extensive genealogical research.

Sometimes I wonder what I thought I'd actually gain from looking through all these records. Did I think that I would have some amazing revelation like that woman in the commercial who discovers that her grandfather was the only doctor in town (gasp)?

The fact is, I don't think I had expectations exactly. Being from an Eastern European Jewish family on my dad's side, there was little hope that any trace of ancestry would have survived to this day in Austria, Poland, Germany or elsewhere. Whatever genealogy my European family had died along with the rest of our people in concentration camps in World War II.

But living so far outside of that era, I convinced myself that anything was possible. It was possible that my family might not have been wiped out. It was possible that they'd gone into hiding or been saved right before they could be interned by the Nazis. It was possible that they'd survived and thrived and produced distant cousins for me to visit and learn from in modern day Europe.

Yet with all records lost or burned, and the few records that may actually exist like my great-grandfather's ship boarding information, this kind of revelation isn't likely to happen for me.

Somehow I still value the time I've spent searching. In more recent years, though I've neglected to look up much on my maternal side (because most of it would be in Japanese and my understanding of the language as well as my awareness of Japanese genealogical databases is minimal) I even decided to look up my mom's records just for curiosity's sake.

Once you've lost family, even if they never truly existed for you in your lifetime, it makes you treasure any trace of existence you find of them. It's like if they still exist on paper that they have grown an extra dimension: a dimension of presence that transcends time.

While I was sitting in my school's slightly overheated student center watching a performance of Cabaret tonight, I was reminded of quite how much family means to me. Even those relatives whom I never met, who are basically figments of my imagination with barely a face or a name or a history placed to them, mean something to me.

In a terrible yet powerful reveal at the end of the musical, we find that our narrator is destined to be interned himself as a German-labeled "Jude." For a moment, I just had to close my eyes. As I sat in the theater - surrounded by the luxuries of 21st century life and by people who, even if they could tell I am half-Jewish (which they can't because, like I mentioned earlier, I'm a very unidentifiable mutt), would never judge me harshly for that - I couldn't help but feel thousands of emotions well up inside of me.

I felt anger at never getting a chance to have a fully-realized familial history. I felt cheated at not having European relatives. I felt isolated for my family being so singular within the country and the world, identified through our distinct surname. I felt hate for the sources of intolerance and blindness, toward fascists and those that turned away from the Jewish people in their time of need. I felt fear for myself and my family had we ever faced a fate like our relatives'. I felt sadness at not being able to share life and love and compassion not only with those unborn relatives that would have existed if not for the Holocaust, but also at not being able to feel a kinship with the family I lost in the 1940's. I felt the unrelenting need to be fulfilled, to learn about my past and to find closure in my own genealogical history.

But most of all I felt proud because without the tragedy of my family history and the histories of families like mine, perhaps I never would have had the appreciation that I do for my own past and for preserving that past.

It's hard dealing with the unknown sometimes, and even harder dealing with the fact that the only reason there is an unknown is because you were the victim of hate and cruelty. But out of the dust comes some hope for the future: that we will live by new standards of equality and acceptance, an eye on the past and the other looking toward the future.