Saturday, December 31, 2016

Celebrating Silvester, Whoever He Was

I've been writing for Berlin Loves You and they asked me to write up an alternative guide to New Years Eve. I started with an introduction to why New Years is called "Silvester" in Berlin, but it was too long for the article. I cut it down but in the final article, it got cut even more. I thought maybe some people would be interested in the full expanded trivia, so here it is, expanded even more with annotations and everything. The Berlin Loves you article can be found here in case you're curious about the cut or looking for last minute non-techno things to do in Berlin for New Years. 

In America, Sylvester is a tuxedo cat with a bad lisp. Sylvester is an Eye-talian knucklehead who made a couple of boxing films. But in Berlin, Silvester is what the locals say when they mean New Years Eve. So who the heck is this Silvester guy? I finally looked it up and it turns out that he was the pope who converted the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity.

If you google this Pope Silvester guy, you'll immediately turn up rumors that he and Constantine were both rampantly anti-Semitic but that’s just hearsay. There's plenty of evidence of anti-Semitism in the middle ages so I have no idea why an alt-right website feels the need to make this up. Maybe the writer is a sourpuss who wants to pour cold water over New Year celebrations? (I went on a google dive and apparently there are conflicts in Israel over Rosh Hashanah vs. everyone else's New Year.) You'll also find a source that says Silvester was black and a few other sources about him slaying a dragon. So if you believe everything that's on the internet, Silvester was the first black man to slay a dragon and became pope. That's a way better rumor to spread around and I'm very happy to help you do that. But sadly, it doesn't serve anyone's agenda, so I doubt if it will gain much traction.

The truth is that no one knows anything about Sylvester except that he was too sick to attend the Nicean Council and he happened to die on December 31. That was right in the middle of a 12-day pagan festival to banish evil spirits called the Rauhnächte. Germanic tribes throughout Central Europe believed that during those “Rough Nights,” the sun slowed down to a crawl while Wotan led a band of bellicose ghosts on a wild hunt through the dark skies. In response, the Teutons filled their houses with smoke, banged kitchen utensils, beat on trees with flaming cudgels, and rolled burning wooden wheels down mountainsides. Good times. Naturally, sourpuss early Christians disapproved and they set about convincing pagan Germans to fête Silvester instead. In the late 1500s, Europeans countries began to move the first day of the calendar to 1 January and the feast day for Silvester gradually turned into celebrations for a new year.

***
  Like in NYC, there are a billion things to do in Berlin tonight. I might lay low after two days of going out and performing. But everyone keeps telling me that Warschauer Strasse is like a warzone of fireworks. That sounds amazing to me after 20 years of fireworks restrictions in NYC. And my dad comes from Yanshui, a small town in Taiwan whose claim to fame is that it hosts the craziest fireworks festival in the world. People literally wear full face helmets and hazmat suits. I've never been to Asia during Lunar New Year and I probably would hate Yanshui's fireworks, but I am all about down home street celebrations. Maybe I will go and take some photos of Berliners making a big ruckus for Silvester like it's 330AD.

Running out now to get groceries before all the grocery shops close for two days. Leaving you with this video of Joshua Samuel Brown in Yanshui a few years back.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Miles in Berlin

[Written on Sept 15th but I didn't have a chance to post until just now...]

I'm waiting at the airport for my son. His flight is about half an hour late and of course I got here way too early. Most people in Berlin don't know that I have a grown son. I had him way young (actually it was an immaculate conception when I was 8 years old but no one believes me). It's weird to me that he's an adult and that I had this whole other life when I was a mom. So when Miles said that he bought tickets and he was coming to visit me, I started to tell people that my little brother was coming. Partly because I'd have to really open up to everyone here and I'm not sure if I'm ready to do that. (It's so refreshing not to be in your hometown where everyone seems to have known you since you were an angry 14-year-old.) And also, I knew everyone would instantly wonder how old I am.

Two years ago, I somehow got involved with a much younger guy for a very brief moment in London and when he dropped me for no reason, I wondered if it was because I was ten years older than him. Not that we ever had a discussion about this. But it did seem that our understandings & experiences were so different simply because of the different times that we came of age. The way I realized that he must be way younger was a discussion when I mentioned the fall of the Berlin Wall & I realized he had no personal memory of it.

I've never been anxious about my age before. This is a whole new thing for me. I was at a gal's 28th birthday party and a mutual friend told her that she had to start lying about her age. (Yes, I know, craaaazy...) I'm a lot older than 28 but this thought never entered my mind until the incident with that guy in London. 

My whole life I've been hampered by things I have little control over: my gender, my ethnicity, my lack of money. And now, great, let's add age to this list. Well, actually, age was an issue when I first began working in theater since I was too young to be taken seriously. And now I'm too old to still be "emerging." I never seem to be able to do anything when I'm supposed to.

But after a few weeks of telling people about my "little brother," I'm thinking, to hell with it. I was a single mom and it was damn tough. And I was a good mom even though I had no idea about parenting from my own parents who were never around and treated me terribly. Miles calls me and says he misses me, so I must have done something right to have a son who actually wants to spend time with me. And he's a huge reason why I am who I am today. Before he came into my life, I didn't know that I could be loved. So not mentioning that I have a son just feels like I'm denying a huge and essential part of myself. 

And Miles still kicks my butt. On my own, I mostly don't care that I have barely enough money to eat. On my own, I rarely want to buy anything unless it's something for a show. But for Miles, I want a nice place for him to stay and enough money to take him out to dinner and I can't wait to go out dancing with him and his lovely girl. I've been hustling these last three weeks in a way that I've never done before in Berlin. 

I'm also a little nervous meeting him and feeling sentimental that he's now an adult. My beautiful little boy who used to gaze at me with such adoration. I envy more stable parents that they kept their child with them through their teenage years. We lost our home when he was 16 and since then, I've never spent more than a day with him here and there. Even after I found a new place for us to live, he decided to stay at his father's friend's place, perhaps so he wouldn't be a burden on me. 

He's older now than I was when I had him. So our relationship will be different than when I last spent time with him. And we'll be together almost every day for nearly a month. I hope that we can be good friends. I hope I can make it up to him for losing our home and sending him out in the world before he was really ready. 

[This is when Miles tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hello, mom."]



Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fifteen Years Later

This is the article I wrote two weeks after 9/11 for www.edreams.com The website was really new and they had a section where writers gave local travel advice. I was their New York correspondent. I was also the Development Director of Theater for the New City at that time. That's the theater that is mentioned in the article. 

Re-reading this article is really poignant. It was a strange time in New York, sort of like being in a funeral with 8 million other people. I think people in 1963 who watched JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on television must have had the same experience. Our hopeful illusions about the world were suddenly dashed. Suddenly, we woke up and saw how much things had changed. Suddenly, there was a new sober reality that we all had to face. 

I still think of the gathering I attended the day after 9/11 in Union Square. This is the usual place New Yorkers rally and without facebook or twitter or even any word of mouth, everyone instinctively knew to go to Union Square and bring a candle. In fact, there were no candles to be found in any bodega south of 23rd Street. So I went to the basement of the theater and scrounged around in the prop area, emerging with three dusty orange candle holders that had some meager stubs of candles in them. With these in hand, my co-workers, my little boy, and I set off for Union Square. We arrived to find it jam packed. I've never seen so many people in one place. Just going the one city block from Union Square East to Union Square West literally took an hour. I swear there must have been 50,000 people there. And no one said a word. All 50,000 of us walking silently through the park carrying candles. MISSING posters plastered on every available wall....A deep sense of unity....A sobering sense of loss. That was 9/11 in NYC.
______

My brother called from Tokyo at 8:55 in the morning on September 11th. I was lying in bed, enjoying the sleep of someone who had worked HARD the night before on a benefit that was pretty terrific, I must say. The answering machine picked up and I heard my brother say, "I hope you're nowhere near the financial area. I know you probably aren't but I thought I should call." And then he hung up before I could get to the phone. What the hell is he talking about? I wondered. I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep. Outside a few people screamed about something. I put the pillow over my head. The phone rang just as my cat curled up comfortably next to me. I was loathe to get up. The machine picked up again and it was my friend Mark yelling, "Wake up! Wake up!" So I got up, got the phone and very grumpily barked,"WHAT???" He replied, "One of the World Trade Centers just fell down."

Needless to say, I turned on the telly and watched with the whole world as the World Trade Center turned to rubble. Only two channels were being transmitted; television had been shot down like the stock market. Another friend called. He didn't have a television so I spent the next half hour describing to him all the terrible images on the screen. At noon, I finally went to the theater where I work, walking in bright, beautiful autumn sunshine, with many confused and dazed people. There were lines in front of every telephone kiosk and lots of people just standing around in shock. From every store you could hear the same news blaring. Channel 5 coming from every shop and restaurant. At the theater, the news was on too. I found it impossible to work, to type out what suddenly seemed utterly mundane grant applications for this or that artist. We closed early, at 3, and I went to fetch my little boy since his dad was working across the water in New Jersey and wouldn't be able to get back to New York in time. (Turns out it took him 14 hours to get back home.) I spent the rest of the night watching TV with my boy, wondering what terrible precipice we were now on.

After that crazy day, there were candle-light vigils practically every night in Union Square Park. New Yorkers are a bit more somber than usual. I still can only get a few channels on the television. And of course, the skyline is missing its two front teeth. In many ways, though, this tragedy has shown what a great place New York is. For goodness sakes, where else can you imagine 40,000 people running from two collapsing 103 story towers and NO ONE is trampled to death??? Incidents of racist attacks are much less in New York than anywhere else in this country. There have been none in my neighborhood, despite the many Arabic newsstands and falafel shops that dot the Lower East Side. Our local mosque locked up on the day of the tragedy but they haven't been attacked. Despite New York receiving a solar plexis blow, we are still standing and still reaching out to each other.

For those of you who may be worried about coming to the city, I want to reassure you that New York does not look like blitzed-out London now. The lower west side area south of Canal and west of Broadway was cordoned off for a while, but lower Manhattan is now open except for the few blocks immediately around the disaster area. While you can no longer visit the World Trade Center, parts of Battery Park will be open and you can still take rides on the Staten Island ferry for one of the most beautiful views of New York. I love this city and I feel, like most New Yorkers, that I've been dealt some kind of great psychic blow. But New York is still beautiful, it's still bustling and still bountiful to people of all nations. We've been exposed as being vulnerable like everyone else, despite our tough talk and fast walk, but in our vulnerability, we're relearning that our real strength isn't in big buildings or economic institutions, our real strength lies in unity and love. And unity and love is something New York has plenty of.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Thoughts on Brexit

Like everyone else in the wake of Brexit, I’ve been thinking about the UK and wondering what led to such an astounding vote. Obviously, there is massive dissatisfaction with the EU. But this is being expressed in the wrong way. You may not agree with everything in the Workers Solidarity Movement in Ireland but I think this is a very articulate statement (the bold type by me):
The EU is just one of the many ways that capitalism is maintained; it's fundamentally neoliberal and imperialist and if this was a referendum for it to be destroyed we be calling for it to be. That's not the case though, no matter how much people want it to be. Claims that we should leave in order to smash Fortress Europe are complete ludicrousy - smash Fortress Europe by creating Fortress Britain and reinforcing borders? We know the freedom of movement stuff generally only applies to white europeans and we're not insisting otherwise but more borders and another fortress is not going to destroy Fortress Europe. This is a racist referendum, even getting to this stage of a referendum is a massive victory to UKIP, the BNP, Britain First and all the other racists, fascists and xenophobes; the very people who will undoubtedly benefit from a Leave Vote…
And here’s a very interesting post-Brexit assessment by Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Mail (I know, I know, but it’s a really coherent article even if it’s in a tabloid):
This was not merely an electoral earthquake. It was a popular revolt by vast swathes of England and Wales against the political, financial and cultural elite…
For me, this vote is very emotional even if I’m not British. It just serves to reinforce the message I got last year when I was refused entry to the UK. The reasons stated were that I had been traveling back and forth too much for their liking and that they didn’t believe I had enough money for a three-month stay. Apparently, you have to be rich to go to the UK and only travel once per year on the two or three week vacation permitted by your employer. And was xenophobia or racism also a part of the decision by the border control lackeys? I’ll never know but several London friends are quite upset at what they perceive as the growing right wing isolationism in the UK. And the only other people detained that night in the airport were all brown men.

So what will the UK do next? All the artists and art organizations are worried about what this means for the funding and exchange that is so vital to the field. There are calls for another referendum. It seems that Scotland is poised to leave and perhaps Northern Ireland too. There are even calls for London to leave.

What everyone seems to understand is that the UK needs to patch up their deep divisions somehow. And I think the Brexit vote is a canary in a coalmine for America. We’re also deeply divided around much the same issues and it’s possible that in our next election we could veer terribly off to the right.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

I Am a Vase

This is the first of three articles about art modeling. 

A filmmaker has asked me to be part of a documentary about art modeling. And after talking to him, I’m peeved enough to express my own views. What irritates me is his prurient idea that nudity is what art modeling is about. Um, no, art is what art modeling is about. Anyone can take off their clothes. I bet that at some point in the past 24 hours, you too took off your clothes! Okay, perhaps you’ve never disrobed in public, but the novelty of that lasts for all of like two seconds. And then your neck has a horrible crick but you can’t move for another Ten. Long. Agonizing. Minutes.

Everyone has a body. The point of art modeling isn’t the nudity of a body, but the structure of a body.  Drawing from a nude model allows an artist to go back to basics and understand the architecture of the human form. It’s just easier to draw a naked person than one enveloped in clothing.

I would think this is obvious but from the conversation I had with the filmmaker, it seems that some people can’t see beyond the nudity aspect. It’s hard for me to grasp this but I think they must have a deeply internalized Puritanical morality through which everything is viewed. For them, a nude body isn’t just a nude body. For them, nudity is inseparable from sexuality and/or shame. To be nude in public is terrifying or daring or provocative.

But an art model isn’t there to purge their internal issues or to get someone worked up. Nude or not, an art model is supposed to come up with an expressive pose and sustain it for a certain length of time. This is a lot more difficult than it seems.

First, you need to have a varied physical vocabulary. Especially if the session is comprised of several short poses. Being a dancer helps. Seeing lots of artwork helps. And having the schizophrenic ability to view yourself from the outside is rather instrumental. The other thing that is required is the strength to hold a position. Even the most comfortable reclining pose becomes unendurable after a while. The body is just not really meant to be still.

So it might seem like something anyone can do, but there is actually an art to art modeling. A good art model has the uncanny ability to find a pose that is interesting from at least three different angles, while accurately calculating how long it can be held. Anyone who’s ever art modeled knows this is not easy. Even if you’ve posed for artists as long as I have, you still make mistakes and find yourself in pins and needles, with your arm screaming to be moved.

I started posing for artists when I was about 17 years old. A photographer approached me on the subway and asked if I would model for him. He paid $25 per hour, a small fortune to a teenage runaway. It might have been him who introduced me to the Art Students League of NY, which kept me decently employed for the next three years. Looking back, this was probably one of the best places to learn about art modeling. Put all your weight on one leg, I was told. Turn your body slightly. Tilt your head. A pose is more interesting if it’s asymmetrical. And then for a while, I was the lecture model for Gustav Rehberger and learned a lot about anatomy from being his guinea pig: the three planes of a foot, the difference between a man’s neck and a woman’s, the complex parts that make up an eye.

At the Art Students League, I got experience posing for all kinds of mediums, including sculpture, where the modeling occurs on a giant turntable. The instructor comes and turns you every so often like a plate of bok choy on a Chinatown banquet table. “I am a vase. I am a vase,” I found myself thinking. I was desperate to keep my mind occupied since I had a standing pose that was incredibly painful.

Quentin Crisp said once that he never had thoughts about anything while posing except for the pose itself. But I find that thinking is one of the keys to being still. Not only can you quickly pass the time, but I’ve also developed the ability to drift away in my thoughts, leaving my body relatively immobile. I’ve composed entire essays in my head, won heated arguments with my parents, and come up with an amazing set design for a production of Agamemnon. I actually find art modeling rather meditative. Either that or it’s just contributing to my ultimate mental collapse.

During breaks, I usually wander around the room. Partly, this is to get some needed circulation in cramped up body parts. But it’s also interesting to see the work that is being produced. Not because oh look, it’s me me me me me! Well maybe, but I like to think that I’m more fascinated to see the same pose from 10 different angles as seen by 10 different people. It’s the Rashomon effect on a page. And it’s so interesting to see that most pictures look a lot like the artist. 

There was only one time that I ever saw an artist draw me as an Oriental stereotype. Like literally, there were slanted lines where my eyes ought to be. It was in a beginner’s class but I’ve posed for high school students and never once have I ever seen a picture of me with chinky eyes.  Interestingly, it was a black guy on the outskirts of London who drew that picture. I think maybe he was a recent immigrant and hadn’t been exposed to much of the world yet. Every other artist I’ve ever encountered draws from what they see, not what they think they should see.  

This is what I think is the most radical thing about drawing from life. In order to depict someone accurately, an artist has to see beyond preconceived ideas and break everything down into geometric shapes. It’s the great equalizer. No matter what our size, gender, or race, we’re really just a bunch of spheres and cylinders hanging on a skeletal frame.

But it seems that some people like the filmmaker and that black guy on the outskirts of London can’t get beyond themselves to see a body just the way it is. For that black guy, I’m Asian so I must have Mongoloid eyes. His unconscious racism makes him incapable of seeing that I do have eyelids. For the filmmaker, I’m nude so I must be an exhibitionist or a libertine. His body issues make him incapable of seeing the eloquence of a pose, the uniqueness of a particular position, the expressiveness of a gesture. To him, I’m just nude.