Pollyanna & Irene

I’m a Pollyanna; albeit a cynical and sarcastic one, but still a Pollyanna. I genuinely want to believe that there in good in people  even while I’m chuckling about their pants’ inability to cover their plaid  boxer shorts or their failure to find Manhattan on a map of New York City.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene my optimism poked its head out of the muddy waters of the Passaic and liked what it saw: people acting human. Neighbors helped neighbors sort through the destruction that had rushed through their lives. The Church started acting like it should, putting on hip waders and rolling up their sleeves to pump out basements, ripping up molding carpets and pulling out soggy dry wall for people they’ve never met.  Even the corporate world was pitching in.

This got me thinking…

This could be the opportunity for the cast of “Jersey Shore” to redeem themselves to me and the millions of other New Jersey residents by giving back to the state that has provided them fame, fortune and all the  wonderful sea air that they obviously use to inflate their egos. This is something that both the Pollyanna and the cynic could agree on. Disasters can bring out the best in people and nothing enables self-promotion like a tragedy and no one does self-promotion like this crew. Sure, they aren’t going to be named UN Goodwill Ambassador anytime soon but the field is wide open. Vinny could collect unused stair climbers, treadmills that have doubled as clothes hampers for years and dumbbells, lots of dumbbells. Snooki and Deena could donate the dresses they wore to the MTV music awards to Seaside’s Beach patrol to use as flags on their rescue boats.

Unfortunately the cynic won out this time. The over-coiffed and tanned crew hightailed out of Jersey on an MTV chartered private jet to attend the MTV Music Awards in Los Angeles and talked about how horrible it would have been to miss the event. Too bad a huge number of the local fools whose support keep them on the air didn’t have the power to watch them.  Glad to hear that they didn’t have to worry about broken windows, flooded homes and cars destroyed by fallen trees like many of my friends and neighbors.

Even Pollyanna couldn’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But here’s hoping.

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A View from the West

Call children “garbage” when they don’t live up to your standards.

Leave them to stand outside in the middle of a New England winter without a coat until they bend to your will.

Of course, in extreme situations when they are frustrated after a week’s hard work on a piano piece they still cannot master, continue practice through dinner without stopping and do not let them up for any reason, not for water, not to go to the bathroom (admittedly the former does makes the latter more bearable). All the while, continue screaming at the top of your lungs until you lose your voice.

That’s good parenting, according to Amy Chua. And my kids think I’m strict.

This is a brave account. Chua details events that would make the NJ Department of Youth and Family Services actually show up for a scheduled appointment. I am convinced that Chua genuinely believes that she has always acted in her daughters’ best interest, although she does acknowledge that her opinion has changed somewhat and maybe it has, but this book certainly doesn’t support that. Granted, that is probably more a factor of her being a poor writer than an unchanged parent.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has been marketed and attacked as an apology for and celebration of Chinese parenting. However, it is primarily an un-engaging memoir of Chua’s struggle to reconcile her Chinese culture with the dominant American culture, of which she is also a part. This is something to which I could relate if it weren’t for a number of other idiosyncrasies that get in the way: namely her need to continually remind the reader of her success and importance, her shaky ability to convey humor and what seems to be a general misunderstanding of how to construct a memoir.

According to publishing wisdom in order to be published an author needs a platform. In short, something that makes someone an expert. Something that a person knows better than anyone else. This could be something monumental, think Stephen Jay Gould on evolutionary biology or Dr. Oz on heart disease; or completely insignificant, I can think of no other reason someone would actually try to read a novel by Snooki. How much value does being a self-proclaimed guidette add to society? Amy Chua is the successful child of Chinese immigrants. That’s enough for me. I don’t need the constant reminder of her Ivy League education or the classes she teaches at Yale. I can remember where someone works and where she was educated without being reminded every five pages.

I don’t usually seek outside sources when reviewing books because I like for works to speak for themselves, but in this case I couldn’t help myself. The book’s message was immediately confusing. Chua opens her work by giving readers a list of her personal parenting ‘Don’ts’ that have resulted in successful children. The whole list could be boiled down to the following:

1. Without question, do everything your parents force you to.
2. Have no life outside what your parents demand of you.
3. Be better than everyone else (particularly the progeny of Western parents).

 I wasn’t sure how to take this. It sounded vaguely like someone who has no inherent sense of humor trying to be funny. If this were the case it would also explain Chua’s comment that playing drums leads to drug use. I found an interview of Chua by Alison Stewart of Need to Know on PBS that confirmed my suspicions. Although she used terms like “comedic” and “tongue in cheek” it amounts to the same thing: comments that are too ridiculous to be taken seriously and not over-the-top enough to be funny.

Generally in memoir a reader can expect the protagonist to develop over the course of the work. I don’t see it in Tiger Mother. Chua starts out as the domineering mother of two exceptionally talented musicians and by the end she is the domineering mother of one exceptionally obedient and talented musician and one strong-willed, up-and-coming tennis player. This is obviously an earth-shattering transformation in Chua’s eyes, but not so much to mine. And that’s the main problem: audience. As a Western parent (albeit a daughter of determined immigrants) I can’t relate to Chua the way she needs me to in order to engage my attention and sympathies for this disjointed narrative.

What do you think?

Review of Ambos Mundos

Art is Fundamental

Before we can read or even speak, we see. The visual has the power to engage the mind and stir the heart in a way that other art forms don’t. Yet, too much of the visual arts remain inaccessible to people outside of the art community. Much has been debated about whether this is the fault of artists, curators or the public. As far as I am concerned, none of that matters. People are missing out on the opportunity to experience the benefits that can only come from exposure to the visual arts – which is why I am so excited when I can find an entry point for the public to experience art as a part of their lives.

This is precisely the type of experience that Raúl Villarreal’s solo show, “Ambos Mundos” (Both Worlds) provides. Layering traditional paintings with digitally created images and family photos, he uses his own history to explore a sense of place and belonging. Using the tension between his Cuban homeland and the United States where he lives and creates as reference points Villarreal creates art that is both accessible and bewitching.

Villarreal illuminates a world grounded in his own experience rather than the all too often romanticized tale of immigration.  A common motif in his work is the heart. Not the commercialized version used to connote romantic love and unity, but its more realistic, anatomical cousin. Villarreal often depicts it detached from its corporeal position, out of place like the symbolic heart of the immigrant. In “By Any Means Necessary,” an anatomically rendered heart, with its two halves distinguished by the oxygen content of the blood that fills them, is pierced by a palm tree-topped oar. While this speaks directly to the Cuban experience, it is stripped of any of the identifying factors of race or external appearance. This communicates the wider experience of those who not only emigrate, but actually flee their homelands.

The inherent ambiguity in the subjects of many of Villarreal’s works speaks to the feeling of displacement common to the immigrant experience and serves to draw in the observer. In No Longer (In)visible” we are left to wonder whether the blue-framed head attached to and looking down on a shadow body comprised of a circulatory system is appearing or disappearing. His human figures seem to explore the audience, challenging them to explore the works more deeply. The face of a young boy depicted in “Niño el las Alas de la Libertad” (Boy on the Wings of Freedom) from his place above a wing, detached from the bird that once used it to fly, demonstrates the worry of an adult, reminiscent of early twentieth century Ellis Island photos. The “Dark Pool” features a classically draped dark-haired woman staring back at viewers while they view her. Up to her hips in black water: is she submerging or emerging?

In the works of his Signatures series, Villarreal contemplates his heritage using symbols that link back to Afro-Cuban roots. “Shango” and “Centalla N’Doki” both evoke images of strength and power associated with Palo deities (Shango, the god of thunder and Centalla N’Doki, the ruler over winds and gates). Villarreal is adept at bringing color and texture to these digital images in a way that draws viewers in and challenges them to dig deeper in order to understand these symbols, engaging them in a new cultural experience.

I have rarely experienced a more positive complement of art works and their surroundings apart from installation pieces. The first time I walked through this exhibit at seven in the morning I was impressed with Villarreal’s work and its artistry. But viewing it a second time, in the middle of the day, surrounded by the diverse population of students and faculty gave it life and immediacy. Art at its most powerful: integrated into public life. By showing Villarreal’s work in the corridors and library of the main academic building of Passaic County Community College this show is readily accessible to students, many of whom share similar experiences of belonging in two places at once and nowhere at all.

Ambos Mundos was a gallery exhibit of the works of Raúl Villarreal at Passaic County Community College’s Broadway & LRC Galleries from
September 19 – November 5, 2009. The artist work can be seen at his website: http://www.raulvillarreal.com/index.html.

Wops and Mafia Princesses

I was eighteen years old the first time someone called me a wop.  

It was the first weekend at college and I was getting to know some of my classmates over some of the worst pizza known to man. We were talking about what we were planning for the weekend when out of the nowhere this rather upper crusty looking guy, we’ll call him Preston, asked me “You’re a wop, aren’t you?”

Up to that point I had never heard the term and asked Preston what he was talking about.

“You’re a wop. I can tell,” he replied, grabbing my school ID from my hands and holding it up for the rest of the group to see. “See I knew it!”

“Preston, what the heck is a wop?” I knew that I had been insulted but I didn’t know about what

He just smirked and tossed my ID back.

It took me three days to find someone who was willing to tell me what I had been called and even he looked ashamed when he told me. “It means without papers. It refers to Italians.”

I wasn’t naïve, I knew that there were derogatory terms that referred to Italians but I had never heard them directed at me or my family personally before. It was an eye-opener to realize that others didn’t see us as we were but who they wanted us to be. At that point in my life I was living the American dream, my father and his family came to the US from Italy in the 50s. They all worked hard, he and his siblings were able to go to college if they choose. My parents got married and worked together to raise us to get an education and be independent. Our whole family was made up of hard working, intelligent and honest people. They did their military service, paid their taxes, sent their children to school and took care of their parents – all the things that good Americans were supposed to do. We had the best of both worlds we were Americans with Leonardo, Sinatra and ravioli.

This was the first time I was ever faced with the Anti-Italianism the history books told me was long past. Ha! Like during my engagement party when my husband’s grandmother looked around my parents’ house, tapped her nose twice and winked at her son. Her opinion was obvious: Italians can’t possibly work hard for what they have. When I approached my husband about what I had just seen he turned red and told me that she was just joking. Some joke!  I have it on good authority that when she went to her grave in 2008 she was utterly convinced that I was a mafia princess and not the daughter of a CPA that I “pretend” to be.

What I find particularly interesting is how this type of stereotyping is acceptable in the mainstream. In a day and age when most people accept, at least publically, that stereotyping is wrong it remains acceptable to pigeonhole certain ethnic groups.  MTV has argued long and hard that it is merely providing entertainment that the public wants with shows like Jersey Shore (in my opinion, the public will accept whatever it’s handed, but that’s a discussion for another day).  If that is true, what does that say about our culture that in an era where an African-American can be elected to the office of president it is still acceptable to target certain ethnic groups for our entertainment?

 Many people continue to choose ignorance and there is nothing I can do about that. Their stupidity won’t change me one bit, except  to make me more determined than ever to achieve my goals. In the end, the more that I am able to accomplish, the more I prove these idiots wrong. And we Italians don’t give up easily!