Summer is ending. That means Nola Studiola returns to its monthly-curated format. Different artists in and out of New Orleans take over the blog on a monthly basis and determine content according to their artistic needs.
Studiola’s curator for August 2014 is Christianne Sanchez Robinson.
cjsChristianne is an attorney in Houston, Texas, who claims to be someone who loves words. So far, what she’s been able to produce include: a diary, short stories, various half-finished pieces, blog entries, articles for a now-defunct venture capital magazine in New York City, and a self-published novel. Her husband, their Labrador Retriever and somewhat-bitchy cat are the best things in her life. Christianne is a big fan of the following, including but not limited to: reading, snow skiing, Tex-Mex, cheesy TV, Longhorn football and happy hour(s). Find her blog and links to her self-published novel here: www.gorgeousandsassy.com.

Curatorial intent:

Note the above claim to love words and laundry list of written pieces; thus Christianne hopes to use Studiola to awaken her creative juices. Since completing the writing and editing of her novel, starting her law career and just, well, in general, living—she has been slow to get back into a regular groove of writing things other than contract drafts. She hopes to share some of her history in a memoir format, to simply enjoy the process and hopefully to entertain.

nolavie

Christianne Sanchez Robinson’s “residency” (we are fancy like that now) marks the first month of Nola Studiola’s content partnership with the New Orleans arts and culture online publication NolaVie. NolaVie was founded in 2011 by a veteran Times-Picayune journalist and a local non-profit leader to fill the gap in cultural coverage of New Orleans. Each Nola Studiola curator will reflect on his or her work at Nola Studiola in a brief article titled “Dispatches” over at the Vie, sometime during the month-long residency. This is a huge honor and an exciting opportunity for Studiola participants to join in the commitment to make cultural connections among artists in New Orleans, the Gulf South, and beyond. Stay tuned for the first one around mid-month at www.nolavie.com.

 

August Curator/Christianne Sanchez Robinson

The Mustache, or Holy Shit/I am the Patriarchy

stache ripMy boyfriend LB grows a great mustache. Mustache success has been achieved by these notable figures: Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Ron Swanson, Attorney General Eric Holder, Carl Pavano. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Walter Cronkite, Martin Luther King, Jr., my uncle Sam Ripley.

Adam Tschorn, who covers men’s grooming, style and pop culture for the Los Angeles Times, noted the popularity spike of the mustache last year, and identified the “hipster appropriated handlebar” as the particular style that had found new appreciation.

“The handlebar mustache…has become entrenched as a kind of …nostalgic longing…modern-day culture’s renewed appreciation of authenticity and heritage brands.” -June 19, 2013

Continue reading

My Education in My Education

my edWhat am I doing lately? I’m binge-watching Parks and Recreation via Netflix streaming, and reading.

This past weekend, I finished this year’s Lambda Literary Foundation‘s selection for its Bisexual Fiction award, Susan Choi’s My Education. A first-person narrative about first love, circling the drain, careening into and out of academia, and sex–oh, and growing up. I loved it.

I enjoyed reading the reviews of this complicated book, and I was very curious to see how other more experienced critics with more reading under their belts reacted to Choi’s story and language. What a mixed bag! I am fascinated by the ways this book prompted such a scattered reaction among critics. I don’t agree with a lot of the reviews, but one point of disagreement stayed with me. I disagree with Emily Cooke‘s point in her New York Times review that Choi doesn’t reveal what matters to her as an artist.

Cooke has read other books by Choi, and I haven’t. So, I’ve read one book. This one. So, I am working with way less material here. So I am going to say what was clear to me about what Choi values as an artist based on this novel. So, I guess it’s fair to say that I’m not arguing with Emily Cooke–perhaps throughout all of her books, Choi hasn’t made clear one consistent thing she cares about.

I’m about to say that I read one book and came away with a very clear idea of what Choi cares about: sentences. Yes, Choi makes bisexuality as a thing of little consequence in the narrative. But how language captures memory? This artist cares deeply. Finely tuned, expertly accessorized and oftentimes with almost-reckless –but not quite reckless–disregard for commas–in a super sophisticated embroidery of GRE-level vocabulary. I think she is obsessed with trying to match the act of remembering a memory to the language that expresses that, and she uses serpentine structure of her sentences to reflect that process of remembering and making sense of one’s life events.  The long, difficult sentences Choi uses are kind of stand-ins for the long, difficult path of the present-day character remembering her own love affairs, and how she is taking stock of them. And I think that bears on the politics of bisexuality, because if there’s one thing bisexuals are constantly nagged, interrogated, and undermined about, it’s how we make sense of our pasts.

 

“Wait, so because you dated a girl in college, you are/are not calling yourself ________?”

“Wait, so because the love of your life is a man, you are/are not calling yourself ____________?”

 

See?! It always goes back to the past. No other label besides “bisexual” requires you to think about a person’s past history, because bisexual implies more than one partner.

Choi’s sentences are complicated, varied, and at times, they verge on incomprehension–a lot like sexuality.

The very fact that the main character, Regina, doesn’t worry herself with whether she’s straight, bi, or lesbian at any point is definitely a luxury in my opinion. But the very fact that Choi doesn’t go there, I think, makes this an important work of bisexual fiction. This is a character whose love affairs with women and men have deeply shaped her. Period. No weird ranking thing, no “lesbian until graduation” or “crazy lesbian chapter” (so annoying). Hurray, Susan Choi, and Hurray, Lambda Literary Foundation for demonstrating that the “club” is wide and elastic and doesn’t require a fixation on on-the-nose political decrees. And that people can describe who they are without jamming themselves into specific words.

My education in My Education was How to not carry around your messy, shitty first-love disaster in a way that it forms a razor-sharp chip on your shoulder. Growing up. Or, as a good friend of mine likes to say, putting on your big girl panties. 

 

Life with Lost Boy/Crossroads/Can’t You Take a Joke

Confession: I don’t know how to take a joke.

My parents used to chant cantcha jake a toke? over and over at me in my more intense moments of meltdown, when someone had poked fun at me. Super-serious, super-earnest. So much seriousness that it prompted my high school French teacher to whisper burnout in my ear and nudge me during our quizzes, in a (failed) attempt to loosen me up.

After falling in love in a sweaty artist commune in Nebraska, driving across the country and crashing in my friend Val’s loft in the Marigny for a month, Lost Boy and I set up house together to embark on what might be the most romantic–or most insane–love story. “What a great story!” friends often say, foily-sticker stars pocked in their eyes and faces. Or, if it’s one of my intelligentsia friends, “What a great narrative!” jack alison nov 2013 hunters wedding

“Really?” Lost Boy asked at one point, honestly incredulous. “You know people who talk like that?”

Yes. Yes they/we do. Because we are careful about words. Serious about them. Always translating how life lived would look, in words, arranged on paper.

Do I talk like that?

What determines someone’s membership in academic intelligentsia is kind of fuzzy to me, sort of akin to the murk about what entitles a person to claim they’re a “native” New Orleanian, as explored here earlier this year by curator Julia Carey. Nothing throws where you belong into question like falling in love with someone who speaks a different version of your language, and sees with eyes that use different associations to make sense of place.

Flashback to August 2013.

Hammer in one hand, nails in another, I stood to measure the plywood for a pot hanger contraption I was building at the Nebraska artist commune one afternoon. Lost Boy shifted from foot to foot, eager to help me with my basic carpentry, but anxious to show me that he respected my can-do-it attitude.

Then he broke the silence. “What’s a predicate?” he asked. I looked down from where I crouched on the kitchen counter, about to secure one of the hooks to my pot hanger.

And I couldn’t answer. And couldn’t answer. Well, shit, I thought. What IS a predicate?

“Geez, I thought all you English teachers lived and breathed things like predicates. And here I was, feeling inadequate that I was ignorant about predicates!” He laughed, a little stiffly–who was this chick who summoned him to the middle of Nebraska, anyway?

We remedied the situation with a quick Google of Mr Morton a la Schoolhouse Rocks and all was well–or was it? Had I squirreled too far into my unemployment as writer-for-no one-so-no-one-cares-if-I can’t define a predicate? (Word to potential employers in the educational field: I know what a predicate is. It’s just, well, the term was in my Rarely-Used drawer, which I assure you is super-close to my Everyday Tools box. I find discussions around the “doing parts” of sentences so much more, well, dynamic. Or, why can’t we just talk “verbs” and call it a day??)

predicateMy point in revealing this embarrassing moment in my life is not so much to try to describe just how mesmerizing and all-encompassing the Art Farm and falling in love with Lost Boy was and is, to wow you with the intensity of it all by showing you that terms like “predicate” fell out of my teacher-head. (Though I could.) My point is that sometimes I think we get lazy about our language, and that makes us lazy about how we decide where we “belong” professionally. Lazy is the wrong word. We make assumptions once we shoebox ourselves, and we stop working at one level of a professional language. There is a lining of arrogance there when it comes to any involvement in academia. The sign and the signifier loosen their connection, to use words my intelligentsia would understand.

I remember speaking with a dear friend about her job search earlier this spring. She holds a Ph.D. in a specific literature, and much of her work has focused on exploring the gendered situations authors experience in their education and she has demonstrated how this inequality and struggle reflects in their language of their work. Truly a detail-oriented and determined scholar, I admire her focus, not to mention her otherworldly ability to tolerate the politics in her university department long enough to finish the degree. She studied out of the country, but the same could be true of domestic departments, I’m sure. She has been forced to apply to jobs outside of her narrow professional tenure track aspirations, and was baffled when women’s mental health centers didn’t respond to her job applications.

“But I know more about women’s mental health than most people working in those centers!” she cried once in desperation.

Well, er, she does–on paper. And in theory.  And, well, maybe in another time period. This is what is so hard for people like me to understand amidst this crumbling-reshifting-of-educational-infrastructure moment in time we’re living: we know how stuff gets conceptualized on paper. I mean, my cousin didn’t have a Ph.D. in delusional disorders that cause violent outbursts, but after six months working reception at a mental health facility, it’s safe to say she’s an expert on the triggers, warning signs, and patterns around psychosis. But we’re speaking different languages.

Another example: I thought if I studied chain of custody standards for seafood traceability, I would get a job working behind the seafood counter at Whole Foods. I should have flirted with the dudes who were clearly open to a girl joining their ranks, asked them their advice before I went upstairs to speak to their supervisor and plead my case. My bad feminist meter goes off–that too I got implanted in academia. “Oh, I get it,” said a guy I dated once in the middle of an argument. “Being perceived intelligent and independent is important to you.” Shitty as that was to hear flung at me in the middle of an argument, he’s right. (He was a whole ‘nother story.) If I’m without an answer or a probable explanation for something, I feel like I’ve failed as a thinking person. I’ve been trained to develop an argument and present it, over and over, until the logic outweighs the holes. I was raised by a man who had every argument tactic in the book, and would use any and all of them. I’m trying to re-train myself out of thinking everything is an argument, and everyone presents a threat to my logic.

I can talk about it now, and sometimes even laugh (through gritted teeth) , but a year and a half ago, that was my approach to leaving the education and academic field: study the terms and be ready to rattle off the information at a moment’s notice. Basically, I thought if I studied and was a good girl, someone would ask the right questions and I would show them I had the answers. Isn’t that how you succeed, how you demonstrate your right to belong professionally?

Lost Boy comes from a world where talk is cheap and actions are everything. You’re only as good as your last dive. If that were true for professors or artists, we’d be toast. I’m not complaining or trying to draw, as they say, problematic binaries here. I’m just trying to explain the stuff that comes up when two people in different fields fall in love.

Once in New Orleans, we attended my cousin’s wedding together at the French Quarter House of Blues, which is a super-sweet and in my opinion not a bad homage to outsider art that conjures Crossroads of all sorts. We had maybe spent two solid months together total–ever in our lives–and we had just signed a lease. I told him about the wedding a month before, and steeled myself for the reaction I usually got from past partners: “Oh, I don’t know.” or “I can’t plan that far in advance.” Despite his erratic work schedule, which actually does prevent him from planning, on my cousin’s big day, Lost Boy bought new dress shoes and showed up freshly shaved, in a blazer and a big grin for everyone he met. It was pretty sweet to have a hunk on my arm for once-one who actually seemed to want to be there–at a wedding. My family, accustomed to my constant Bridget Jones reprise, showed various signs of shock and disbelief. But to their credit, they worked to hide it.

During the reception, we were seated with the bride’s mother’s college friends. The House of Blues attendants had begun serving hurricanes to guests before the ceremony, so by the time we reached our table at the reception, conversation flowed freely and our table-mates, my aunt’s college friends, a group of sophisticated sixty-somethings, were revealing that they too operate from the Alison Barker camp of wedding guests: dance all night and make ‘em pay for that open bar.

During a break in the music, we sat and fanned ourselves while Lost Boy went in search of water. My aunt’s best friend, conspiratorial mischief glistening in her dark eyes, told me in a super-serious-secret voice: “I understand what it’s like to go for the bad boy.” She smiled, touched me lightly on the arm and said, “Believe me, I know—I get it.” I liked that I was being included in this powerful elder’s embrace..to be drawn aside by a grand dame at a reception is kind of badass. But the bad boy thing…that was not a good thing, right?

I wasn’t sure what prompted this–Lost Boy and I had just unveiled our super sexynasty grinding moves on the dance floor. But it felt deeper than that. Had she caught on to our collision of worlds? Was my failed-academic jive and his shit-in-one sock frankness an obvious doomed meeting of the minds? My head spun, partly due to copious amounts of booze, and partly because I am obsessed with doing things the Right Way, and going for the Bad Boy did not seem like the Right Way to go about anything. Bad Boy Bad Boy. Was Lost Boy a Bad Boy?

I smiled to show her we were in cahoots and when I turned toward my date, I caught the tail-end of his conversation with another woman at the table. “Well, the prison system in California has put a lot of money into the literacy program,” he said. Her eyes widened, and a smile stayed plastered on her face as if forcibly tacked to cover a growing fear. “So she was able to work with me a great deal, one-on-one.”

 

“Ha! Who could have predicted?” he laughed and reached an arm around me and squeezed tight. “The convict and the English teacher!”hunterwedding

She caught my eyes and her smile turned delicious, indulgent. She was in on a juicy, made-up secret. The glimmer brewed in her eyes, too. I let him have the moment, and it became mine, too. We all laughed, sharing it in different ways.

Crossroads. To approach them and get to the other side, I think we have to take the stories we tell about ourselves a little less seriously.

Summer: Studiola Roots/New Orleans/Barker

It’s hot, I’m full of angst and aimless, multi-directional impulses, so I think now is a good time to grab the reins here at Nola Studiola for a couple months’ sojourn. Yours truly Alison Barker is back to update you on all things Barker, including Lost Boy, his Mustache, the politics and evolving philosophy on her invisible, swollen profession of book reviewing and criticism, her novel (only a little–otherwise all the magic seeps out!) and the current quest to Live in New Orleans and Not Lose All Sanity/Gain More Magic I Seek.

So much! We’ll start with the fact that it’s more or less eight months in, and Ms. Barker and Lost Boy are still going strong. Of course, many of those months (I lost count) Lost Boy was either holed up on an international vessel off the coast of Equitorial Guinea or performing ship’s husbandry in one of our major naval base port cities–but overall, I think we get to check the 8 month-ish box.

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To the right is an obligatory image that should appear on lifestyle/personal essay blogs. In which the female writer shows off humble attempts at some DIY undertaking.

So that box is also checked.

Further/as I mentioned above: Lost Boy has a mustache. Really, it’s a Mustache. It’s got its own accessory hair products, signature finger twirl maintenance gesture, and in some ways its own social life. Lost Boy, never what you’d call a “hipster” in most definitions of the word, has, with his mustache, attracted a sturdy, if transient, young twenty-something male hipster following. Really I should say it’s his Mustache that has garnered the following. But Lost Boy and the Mustache–often inextricable this hot, sultry summer of 2014, in which, in a cruel twist of fate, I have just as little AC and almost as little employment as I did when I first wrote you, dear readers, from this blog perch two years ago.

I will use Nola Studiola for a few weeks while we prepare some new content partnership (!) and design a New Orleans call for curators. Here’s an in-between Studiola residency of my own, to blow off some steam that accumulates when an underemployed writer cohabitates with a commercial diver, and tries to write and love and live in New Orleans. So.

Back again. Still here.

Who’s keeping track?

 

 

The Quit that Wasn’t

 

The Quit that Wasn’t

Most tours of duty on a freight train lumber lugubriously and are marked by long delays and scrupulous attention to redundant safety rules. The era of cowboy railroading has passed and Rail’s cache and the infatuated devotion rail-fans exude seem absurd to trainmen. Dragging mind-numbing quantities of stuff and prodigious piles of industrial commodities around sinks a railroader’s heart into his particular brand of capitalistic cynicism: only his career’s undesirable lifestyle justifies his wage and only his wage justifies his lifestyle.

A “Quit,” however, will infuse an engineer’s grey, dull eyes with sheen and lend spring to a conductor’s step. A “Quit” is an auspicious trip whose circumstances allow a crew to make their assigned terminal in less than eight hours; since we’re paid by mileage rather than hours, less than a day’s work, still yields a full day’s pay.

Some weeks back, a young hogger and I crested the rise at a river valley’s edge exuberantly because our 9,000 ton had come together with unexpected efficiency, ran smoothly despite the failure of our electric motor braking and met no delays at an infamous downtown chokepoint. “We’ll get a Quit!” we yelped and felt like cowboys until a skunk’s skull shattered that shift’s smooth prospects.

“PHEEW!” our air brakes shot into emergency, a stop so unexpected and perfectly engineered that the engineer had to tell me that it had happened. I trapesed back dozens of cars to find a cause, arrived at a gap in the train where the air hoses had separated and found a hunk of iron coupler on the ground–the latching knuckle above it showing a gash where the hunk used to be—then flinched at the stench of a skunk’s severed neck lying on the rail’s top edge, skull no more. We must have hit it at a crossing’s rise where two cars’ air hoses bounced off the carcass and broke free of each other. Our “Quit” was skunked!

All images from the series A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity 2006-2009 © Mike Brodie, Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery / Yossi Milo Gallery

All images from the series A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity 2006-2009 © Mike Brodie, Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery / Yossi Milo Gallery

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Days later, I did get a Quit, built a train and got home in time to put my son to bed. But, this Quit also “wasn’t” because rather than retire, I spent the whole night finishing Poe Ballantine’s Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere whose “Elfin (The End)” exacted streams of tears from my face and a hastily scrawled detective theory from my pen. Weeks later, my surmises about who may have killed Steven Haataja sound insipid. What matters is the impression left on my heart by Poe Ballantine’s “Quit that wasn’t:” Having himself teetered on suicide’s brink (the ultimate Quit) Mr. Ballantine bravely rejects official dismissals of the Haataja tragedy as a suicide, refusing to quit on his immolated friend, Steven; his often strained marriage; and (perhaps) autistic son. Poe Ballantine’s prose reveals a heart that seems to inhabit his person like lightening a cloud–pulsing, flashing, zagging toward an inexorable, but unexpectedly exact earthward ground. With his book in hand, I am not merely a reader, but a conductor.

 

Dying To Read

 

Dying to Read

 Bumped off road service, I now work in a rail yard whose grind of switching two-hundred cars a night wears on my writer-ly faculties like chasing receding horizons on foot for hundreds of miles over undulating hills. Painstaking hours of back and forth movements order a few tracks, but there will be another two-hundred mixed-up rolling boxes and flats here tomorrow!

Rail yards are repositories for freight like writers’ journals for ideas. Our Muses stash troves of images, convictions and characters all destined for disparate directions. I remember the journals of my youth, how words flickered through my mind like the snapping air that animates a locomotive’s brake system…flicka-tick-tic, flicka/ flicka-tick/ tic, flick…also the desire to think Big Thoughts as relentless as rail converging on distant horizons. Then, the chasm between vibrant inward energies and the reality of what I could express primed me for the consolations of Bill Holm, an acquaintance of my father who let the windswept plains of southwestern Minnesota coax from his soul The Music of Failure (Plains Press, Southwest State University, Marshall, MN. 1985. (pg. 58-59):

“Above me, wind does its best

to blow leaves off the Aspen

tree a month too soon. No use

wind, all you succeed in doing

is making music, the noise

of failure growing beautiful. ”

Since my youth and Holm, I have been longing for someone of my generation to whose work I can say–This I’ve-been-dying-to-read!– and whose life proves that the heart’s extra-biological pulse and the desire to write die hard.  How apt then, that I was “dead” on a train when I began to read Poe Ballantine!

Every laborer wears down and sighs “I’m dyin’ here!” Trainmen die daily in a concrete, defined manner. We go to work whenever the Railroad calls, but federal statutes decree that twelve hours constitutes a tour-of-duty after which we can only wait until Management gets us off our train.

I began to read Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts. Portland, OR. 2013) after serving as a brakeman on a coal train, during a nineteen-hour shift, as that train’s sixth crew (two-hundred-sixteen man-hours to travel forty-six miles ). The ice-choked river nearby was no mere background for our endeavor, but communicated the Universe’s hostility to human effort, like the scrub pine through which Poe Ballantine searches for clues in the apparent homicide of his friend, Steven Haataja (pronounced Hah-de-ya).

Like Bill Holm, Poe Ballantine relishes the ironies of taking a creative stand in the midst of desolate plains and a town unlikely ever to intrigue scions of culture.   As I followed the trail of Mr. Ballantine’s True Crime saga, I felt the edges of my mouth widen with recognition. Was it necessary for Mr. Haataja to die in order for Ballantine’s art to thrive?  The relationship between literature and life is fraught not “inspiring” the way English teachers make it sound.  If we aren’t dying to read and striving against forces threatening to snuff out our spark, are we living?

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All images from the series A Period Of Juvenile Prosperity 2006-2009 © Mike Brodie, Courtesy of the artist, M+B Gallery / Yossi Milo Gallery