Sunday, October 16, 2011

Optimism at an Unusual Time: Women, War & Peace

Of course, the topic of the moment is Occupy Wall Street, and deservedly so. As is the case for so many people (something like 99% of them!), OWS really resonates with me—after my year of soul-searching abroad, I find myself unemployed and living in either San Francisco on my sister’s foldout couch, or in Southern California with my parents, back in the bedroom that was mine in high school.

I could elaborate the general chaos of my life at the moment, but I’ll spare you the details. In short, I’ve been living in a kind of Limbo world—it’s been challenging to maintain structure or routine, and I feel like an imposition to pretty much all of my very awesome, very patient family members. (Thanks, guys :)) I didn’t imagine it would be this hard.

But despite my circumstances, the main feelings I have right now are of urgency and optimism. Urgency not to simply find employment, but to find employment that is meaningful, and for good. And, in the course of my job search, I have derived so much optimism from the many brilliant people I’ve met, hard at work doing really important and really good work.

So in the spirit of Urgency+Optimism, I’m writing to share something completely awesome, completely free, and available to you right now on the internet: a made-for-television mini-series called Women, War & Peace. I think it’s important and I hope I can pique your interest with a summary, a hyperlink, and some notes I took on a lecture I recently attended.

(And maybe by the end of this post I can even convince you that it, too, bears relation to Occupy Wall Street—or San Francisco, or Rome, or where ever you happen to be.)

The idea of the Women, War & Peace series is that women are rarely the focus of media attention surrounding armed conflict—and yet, as Hilary Clinton says in the series’ trailer, “There are no front lines in today’s wars. The primary victims are women and children.”

Producer Abigail Disney noticed the disproportionate number of casualties among women and their lack of representation in portrayals and narratives of war. She began her film project by asking, “what if we looked at war as though women mattered?” and in conflict zones, “what are women doing?”

She believes the answers are radical and, throughout Women, War & Peace, she looks at war in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Liberia to understand how women’s lives are influenced by conflict and how conflict is, in turn, influenced by women.

The first installment, which aired Tuesday, October 12th on PBS, is called “I Came to Testify.” The 52-minute episode focuses on the experience of 16 women who testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), where they told the story of the systematic rape of Muslim women as a tactic of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s war in the Balkans. Their testimonials and the international attention that they drew had the revolutionary outcome of new international laws about sexual violence in war.

Anyway, I highly recommend checking it out. You can watch the videos in full, shortly after they air for the first time on television. There will be one each week for the next four weeks, and I’m looking forward to learning more about this.

Of course, there are many things to say about “I Came to Testify,” but I thought I would write instead about what you may not be able to see yourself—a lecture I went to by Abigail Disney, who spoke at Stanford University on Wednesday, October 13th.

Disney is a very articulate and likable speaker who had a lot of interesting things to say about gender, politics, the series itself, and her experiences abroad while working on it.

I was interested to learn that Disney has a PhD in English from Columbia, where she wrote her dissertation on war novels. She likened the war novel to a “locker room conversation,” in which, she says, men address the issues of conflict with a male audience in mind and “without the fear of being overheard.” Disney talked about going to screenings of the mini-series at high schools, where boys often ask her why there are no “good” men in the movies. She responds that just as women get erased from the record of conflict, so, too, do the good guys.

For me, this led to Disney’s most interesting comments, which were about the media. When she travels, she sees two figures everywhere: Mickey Mouse and Rambo.

“Rambo is the Mickey Mouse of war,” she said, and described the effect of his pervasiveness: we all walk around with a Rambo-like image of combat in our heads, “this beautiful thing that looks and sounds like war but is actually a lot smaller, and cleaned up.”

The result? “We are getting a politics that has been shaped by the media,” Disney says. And Women, War & Peace is an attempt to push back.

Disney deploys all of the resources and mechanisms we use in the media—high production value and quality, great sound, famous narrators—to convey the importance of her subject. I really appreciate her deliberate attention to this issue of form and content, and if you check out the series I think you’ll find evidence of that thoughtfulness everywhere.

She also comments on our cultural obsession with the very content of the first episode, “I Came to Testify,” and takes a critical attitude toward “the prurient quality to how much we want to talk about rape.” But she says that rape isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom. She suggests we stop talking about it and talk instead about women’s political self-determination.

Anne Firth Murray, a Consulting Professor at Stanford and the founder of the Global Fund for Women, moderated the talk and followed up with questions after Disney spoke.

Murray’s last question of the night spoke to the optimist in everyone. She asked, “what most gives you hope?”

Disney answered by citing Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest, which I’m looking forward to checking out. She paraphrased Hawken when she said that, more than ever, people are giving up their earning potential to make positive change in the world.

For Disney, this begs the question: are we at a different historical moment? And if so, what does that mean? This movement of nonprofit work and social entrepreneurship to which she refers is dominated by women.

“We stand to come out of these years with something altogether new,” she said.

& I like it—I think it's true.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Now for something completely different: Shameless Self-Promotion

If you’ve got the money and you’ve got the time, check me out in Zoland Poetry, The Annual #5! I publish poetry under the too-self-serious and sort of-pseudonym “R. Mayer Jenkins.” In the same issue, also check out Angela Hume—a very talented poet and critic with whom I had the opportunity to study at UC Davis :) I haven't actually gotten my copy yet and, considering the number of times I've moved in the last year, there's no guarantee it will ever catch up with I'd be happy to hear from anyone how the issue turned out!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Stadtamt and a Mysterious Package

Yesterday morning, I woke up earlier than usual. I did not snooze my alarm one, two, or five times as I am wont, nor did I beat a laggard’s path to the coffee pot, linger over a mixing bowlful of muesli, and read three dozen news articles about Anthony Weiner, austerity, and airstrikes on Tripoli before “beginning my day.”

Yesterday morning, I woke up in a panic. My heart was pounding as I broke from nightmares of oversleeping, nightmares of deportation; I rushed to get dressed, gulped not nearly enough coffee and ran out the door. Yesterday morning, I had an early appointment at the Stadtamt of Heidelberg.

The Stadtamt is the Kafkaesque warren of beige rooms and heavy doors where bureaucratic processes, such as registering or unregistering as a city resident, take place. The Stadtamt is take-a-number waiting areas, forms to fill out and pamphlets to read. It is doors with sensors that seem to see you, reluctantly, at the very last second of your approach, sliding open slowly and with great effort. It is long hallways lined with bright tubes of fluorescence, chairs filled by waiting, eye-contactless occupants outside of unresponsive offices, and an occasional faded, floral poster behind a dirty sheet of plastic. Inside the office doors, it is gray, floor to ceiling metal locker doors that hang open, revealing fat manila file after fat manila file, packed snugly together in row upon row.

If it isn’t obvious, I hate this place. I freak out a little every time I have to go, and thus the AM chaos. And yet, it’s wholly unavoidable—if you come to Germany for any more than a month or two, you’re obliged to register with the city. And once you do, you occupy a little place among the manila masses of documents. When you go for an appointment, the file spread open on the desk of the bureaucrat with whom you’ve made an appointment contains not only your biometric photograph, but all of the bank statements, photocopies of your passport, your rental contract, and enrollment with the University, documentation of your reasons for being in Germany, and every email you ever sent to the Stadtamt, printed out in hard-copy.

But in yesterday’s rush out the door to reach this undesirable, inevitable destination, something weird happened.

As I charged out of the apartment, running late, falling over a pair of my own shoes, and stubbing my toe through peep-toes on the jamb (this is not the weird part), I also snagged my purse on a plastic grocery bag that was dangling ponderously from the outside doorknob.

For a few split seconds, the spell of anxiety regarding the immediate, bureaucratic future was broken by wonder. How did someone wake up earlier than me to leave this here? (It was 8:45.)

And of course, What is it?

Sadly, I didn’t have time to plunder through the bag, but rather left it for further speculation, inside on the kitchen table—a grateful diversion throughout what promised to be The Trial (ha, sorry…) of the next several hours.

But in fact, it was all over in no time. The appointment—which concerned my reverse registration process with Heidelberg and [*cough cough*] the fact that I had misunderstood the terms of my student visa and overstayed my allotted time in Germany—only lasted about 15 minutes. The woman I spoke with was really, really nice, and helped me with all the details surrounding procedural, Deutschland disentanglement.


Back at the apartment, Matt had opened the mysterious, early morning delivery. It was from Matt’s German speaking partner, whom you should know a little about before I reveal the contents of the gift:

Matt’s German speaking partner is the nicest. His name is Thiemo and he is the envy of all other American students, who have similarly teamed up with native German speakers to practice their language skills. For their practice sessions, Matt and Thiemo don’t just go for a coffee, they go for a Mass (if you’re not familiar, a Mass is what comes to mind when you think of Oktoberfest—an entire liter of beer in a single, enormous mug). Matt and Thiemo go to hockey games, smoke cigars, see the sites of Mannheim, and often invite me along. Thiemo is our primary source of information about German culture, and is great at recommending the best things to see, to do, and, in this case, to eat!

His gift contained a note by way of explanation, which doubles as the most awesome direct response my writing has ever elicited. He wrote that he read some of the DABR blog, and regretted my difficult vegetarian experience with German cuisine—it’s not all bad! And he wanted to set the record straight with the undeniably delicious traditional (for his family, anyway) food he eats for breakfast most days of the week: Bauernbrot (German “peasant bread,” which is a little like sourdough) and Nutella—a spread with the consistency of smooth peanut butter that tastes like chocolate and hazelnut!! Like I said, Matt’s speaking partner is the nicest.

Free of the responsibilities of the Stadtamt, I had a leisurely, Bauernbrot-and-Nutella breakfast this morning. Needless to say, I loved it! It easily ranks among my favorite German foods :) So this is my thank you note to Thiemo, who has shown us so many great German things!

And now that I’m unregistered with the city, I go back to the US on Tuesday, June 21. I’m excited, but I admit a little bit of sentimentality is starting to set in. After all, Germany has been a pretty great place to be for the last year. I’m already looking forward to a return visit (maybe next time to Berlin??), and hoping to see our fun, Heidelberg-based friends sometime again in the near future! Take care, you guys, and stay in touch!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Bucharest, Romania

Across the sky there passes

a rigid formation of cranes—

the sonnets of the masses.

-Marin Sorescu, Romanian poet

Bucharest is not a beautiful city.

That, at least, was my first reaction. It was March 21st and I had just arrived to the place I had heard nicknamed “Paris of the East,” and yet the Bucharest I saw before me was a city with a low, sketch-gray skyline; a city full of abandoned buildings and rusted branches of rebar, stretching upward into fog; a city littered with garbage, inhabited by stray, barking dogs, and knotted in a chaos of thick, black power lines. It was like no place I had ever been.

I learned quickly that to travel in Bucharest is to travel through the pages of Romania’s relatively recent, tumultuous history. After all, it is written everywhere in the city: in “Piata Revolutiei” and “Piata 21 Decembrie 1989,” and everywhere I saw graffiti that testified to Romania’s 1989 revolution. The city is practically an open book that tells of its former life and rebellion under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

I realized with embarrassment that what I had initially imagined (Paris of the East!) was a place outside of history—one that had not seen the last several decades elapse and, with them, the rise and fall of an oppressive, communist dictatorship. In short, I had imagined a place that did not exist.

Over the next couple of days, I learned from Bucharest as much as I could about its reality in the wake of Communism. I tried to visited the Parliament Palace (built by Ceausescu as his seat of government and formerly known as the People’s Palace), but unfortunately I was unable to go in; on the day I arrived, protests against Romania’s current government closed the building to the public for the four days that followed. According to the man who owns the hostel where I stayed, the Romanian government has secured loans from the European Union but has either not dispersed them or has done a poor job of managing the money; he cited the city’s infrastructure as an example of the problem.

But I did get a chance to visit the Communist Iconography Museum, which is peculiar and, maybe for that reason, worth a look if you happen to be in Bucharest. It’s very small, almost without explanation, and located in the basement of the Romanian Peasant Museum.

The Romanian Peasant Museum, however, received the European Museum of the Year Award in 1996, and is full of valuable cultural information. Each vast room contains a kaleidoscopic profusion of Romania's renowned and splendid artistry.

In addition to the many context-specific displays of the elaborate traditional textiles—heavily embroidered scarves, vests, headdresses, and other decorative fabrics—the museum also boasts significant architectural displays, such as a staggeringly large wooden textile mill (wind and water) that was still operational through the 1980s. One can also view the remains of an 18th century wooden Transylvanian church and stand on the porch of a completely intact peasant house, outfitted with more textiles, pottery, and wooden furniture.

Other objects of interest were wooden religious icons, decorative tiles (especially for adorning the exteriors of chimneys), and ornately carved wooden distaffs. Apparently, when a man in a peasant village wanted to marry a woman, he carved such a distaff for her as a kind of proposal gift. After the couple married, it was put on display in the house, rather than used in a practical capacity for spinning.

After some time learning about the richness of Romanian culture and, of course, becoming more comfortable in my surroundings, my eyes grew accustomed to Bucharest’s urban decay and I began to see, too, the beautiful neo-classical buildings that stand seemingly untouched by history; the dazzling Romanian Orthodox churches, covered inside and out with frescos, gold-leaf, and brightly painted tiles. I saw verdant parks full of lovely paths for walking, and florists that dotted nearly every street corner, offering wreathes and bouquets of fresh lilies, daffodils, and gladiolas.

And political and intellectual life, once forbidden under Communism, seemed to be blossoming everywhere.

On the block where the university building is located, busy stands of used books for sale go on endlessly. Crowds filter in and out of the spacious reading rooms at the National Library. In the evenings, live music swells from every bar in the Lipscani district. Brightly-lit art galleries fill with young people, drinking wine from plastic cups.

At one such gallery I met a university student who is an aspiring writer and actor. We fell into conversation about Romanian politics and the demonstrations outside the Parliament Palace; he told me that he believes the only way to a better, more democratic future in Romania is through bold, uncensored expression. He asked me to notice the street names of Bucharest.

“They teach us to remember the 1989 revolution, but also Romania’s poets and philosophers. Revolution and art—in this city, they are one.” he said.