Feb. 15, 2011

Mid February

by Ann Campanella

The day is warm and dank as early summer.
Crows scream and pitch in the woods
like the ruckus of old women fighting
for the shreds of their lives.

A sudden silence — then the hum
of a black-winged cloud oozing
through the naked sky —
the ruckus begins again.

Under the layers of winter grey,
the farm is pale and muted, the barn doors
shut tight. The only animals in sight
an earth-brown squirrel and these harbinger birds.

I am waiting for the sun to shine again,
to learn how to unfurl my heart in its warmth.
These days, neither long nor short, bright nor dark,
wet nor dry, fill me with a sadness I cannot name.

Yesterday was Valentine's Day, a day of love
and chocolate. My father, born eighty-one years ago,
always bought red cardboard hearts full of truffles
for my mother, my sister and me. Now he is gone.

This morning, the doctor taps his pencil
against the screen. A six-week ultrasound.
There, that's the heartbeat.
A tiny flutter outlined by grey.

"Mid February" by Ann Campanella, from What Flies Away. © Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of artist, writer, and filmmaker Miranda July, (books by this author) born Miranda Grossinger in Barre, Vermont (1974). She grew up in Berkeley. Her parents were writers and ran a small publishing house, North Atlantic Books, which published books like The New Seaweed Cookbook and Supercharging Quantum Touch. She said: "There was always some borderline crazy person who nonetheless my dad was publishing their book. And they needed to live in the house while they finished it." And she said: "I wasn't neglected at all, but my parents didn't have the best boundaries in the world. I was privy to pretty much everything about their lives. I think that's definitely where my desire to be the one who understands comes from." When Miranda was seven years old, she recorded cassette tapes of herself speaking half of a conversation, and then she would play them back so she could talk to herself herself.

She started going by Miranda July when she was 16 years old and put on her first play. She attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, but dropped out after a couple of years — she was frustrated with her film class, which she said was "all guys, and every project had a gun or a dog in it." So she moved to Portland and started doing performance art. She said: "Nothing I can come up with these days is as scary as opening for punk bands in bars back before anyone knew who I was. Sometimes these audiences were so confounded, so unfamiliar with the idea of 'performance' that they would get angry and yell at me while I performed." But she kept at it, and eventually was invited to do installations and performance art at such prestigious museums as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim Museum.

But she is not just a performance artist. She created several experimental short films and then she wrote, directed, and starred in a feature-length film called Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded a Special Jury Prize for "originality of vision." At the Cannes Film Festival, it won the Caméra d'Or for best first film. Her newest film, The Future, premiered at last month's Sundance festival.

Along with her many other talents, July is also a writer. The novelist Rick Moody came to see one of her performances and told her that he was secretly in a rock band. She told him that she was secretly a writer, and he offered to read her stories. He thought they were great, although he gave her some suggestions like: "It would be good if something happens outside the narrator's head." So she worked on her fiction and soon she was getting published in prestigious journals, and she published a book of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007). In her story "Mon Plaisir," she wrote: "When my husband saw the new short hair, he gave me the look we give each other when one of us forgets who we are. We are not people who buy instant cocoa powder, we do not make small talk, we do not buy Hallmark cards or believe in Hallmark rituals such as Valentine's Day or weddings. In general, we try to stay away from things that are MEANINGLESS, and we favor things that are MEANINGFUL. Our top three favorite meaningful things are: Buddhism, eating right, and the internal landscape. Haircuts are in the same category as trimming the finger- and toenails, which is in the same category as mowing the lawn. We don't really believe in mowing the lawn; we do it only to avoid unnecessary engagement with the neighbors. The neighbors trim their bushes into ridiculous animal shapes. Carl looked at me as if I were the neighbors, as if my hair were in a ridiculous animal shape."

The novelist Dave Eggers asked her if she had trouble figuring out which artistic medium she should use for any given idea, and she said, "I write down the idea in my notebook, and then I put a little letter in the corner of the page in a circle. S for story, N for novel, M for movie, A for art, P for performance, B for business."

She said: "We humans are here because nothing can be perfect. There always have to be some living things that are unsatisfied, itchy, trying too hard. If it was all just animals and rocks and lettuce, the gods wouldn't feel like they had enough to do."

And, "I'm always the kind of friend or girlfriend who suggests, when there's some cataclysmic problem in the relationship, 'Well, maybe we can come up with a creative activity that will help us out.' I'm like, 'Let's get out the pens! Draw a picture of how much you hate me!'"

It was on this day in 1764 that the city of St. Louis was founded by the businessman Pierre Laclède and his 14-year-old stepson, Auguste Chouteau. Auguste's abusive father had abandoned him and his mother, Marie Thérèse Chouteau, and she and Pierre Laclède lived together in a common-law marriage. Laclede taught young Auguste about his business, and he brought him on his journey up the Mississippi to establish a trading post at the place where the Mississippi and Missouri came together. They stayed at a French fort about 50 miles south of what is now St. Louis, and looked for land. In November of 1763, Laclède found the place he wanted, a limestone bluff, and he marked trees and then went back to the fort for the winter. The river broke up in February, and young Auguste Chouteau and 30 workers went back to the spot to start clearing land on this day in 1764. There is some debate about whether it was February 14th or 15th, or another day altogether. Chouteau's son Gabriel said that the inaugural day was on the 14th, but Chouteau's own recollection of the event — albeit 40 years after it had taken place — listed the date as the 15th. Chouteau went on to become the most prominent citizen of the quickly growing St. Louis — he started out as a fur trader, and soon moved into banking and real estate.

Tennessee Williams, (books by this author) who grew up in St. Louis, hated the city. He called it "that dreaded city" and "the City of St. Pollution," and when people asked him why he moved to New Orleans, his response was: "St. Louis."

Maya Angelou (books by this author) was born in St. Louis. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she wrote: "The Negro section of St. Louis in the mid-thirties had all the finesse of a gold-rush town. Prohibition, gambling and their related vocations were so obviously practiced that it was hard for me to believe that they were against the law. Bailey and I, as newcomers, were quickly told by our schoolmates who the men on the street corners were as we passed. I was sure that they had taken their names from Wild West Books (Hard-hitting Jimmy, Two Gun, Sweet Man, Poker Pete), and to prove me right, they hung around in front of saloons like unhorsed cowboys.

"We met the numbers runners, gamblers, lottery takers and whiskey salesmen not only in the loud streets but in our orderly living room as well. They were often there when we returned from school, sitting with hats in their hands, as we had done upon our arrival in the big city. [...]

"St. Louis also introduced me to thin-sliced ham (I thought it was a delicacy), jelly beans and peanuts mixed, lettuce on sandwich bread, Victrolas and family loyalty."

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain (books by this author) wrote about St. Louis: "The city seemed but little changed. It was greatly changed, but it did not seem so; because in St. Louis, as in London and Pittsburgh, you can't persuade a new thing to look new; the coal smoke turns it into an antiquity the moment you take your hand off it. The place had just about doubled its size, since I was a resident of it, and was now become a city of 400,000 inhabitants; still, in the solid business parts, it looked about as it had looked formerly. Yet I am sure there is not as much smoke in St. Louis now as there used to be. The smoke used to bank itself in a dense billowy black canopy over the town, and hide the sky from view. This shelter is very much thinner now; still, there is a sufficiency of smoke there, I think. I heard no complaint."

The British poet T.S. Eliot (books by this author) was actually born in St. Louis, which he left at the age of 16. He wrote later: "I feel that there is something in having passed one's childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those who have not [...] the Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world."

Jonathan Franzen was born and grew up in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis. He said: "As an adult, when I say the word 'Webster Groves' to people I've just met, I'm often informed that I grew up in a suffocatingly wealthy, insular, conformist town with a punitive social hierarchy. The twenty-odd people who have told me this over the years have collectively spent, by my estimate, about 20 minutes in Webster Groves, but each of them went to college in the seventies and eighties, and a fixture of sociology curricula in that era was a 1966 CBS documentary called 16 in Webster Groves. The film, an early experiment in hour-long prime-time sociology, reported on the attitudes of suburban sixteen-year-olds. I've tried to explain that the Webster Groves depicted in it bears minimal resemblance to the friendly, unpretentious town I knew when I was growing up. But it's useless to contradict TV; people look at me with suspicion, or hostility, or pity, as if I'm deeply in denial."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of comic-book artist and writer Art Spiegelman, (books by this author) born in Stockholm, Sweden (1948). His parents were both survivors of the Holocaust, and when he was growing up, he often heard them screaming in the middle of the night from their nightmares. Spiegelman fell in love with Mad magazine when he was 10 years old, and started drawing comics. By the time he was 14, he had a job with the Topps chewing gum company, designing comics that came with different brands of gum.

He eventually got into drawing alternative comics, and one day he was asked to contribute to an anthology of animal cartoons. The request gave him an idea for a comic strip about the Holocaust in which all the Jews would be drawn as mice and all the Nazis drawn as cats. He said, "Almost as soon as it hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents — how Nazis had spoken of Jews as 'vermin,' and plotted their 'extermination.'"

In order to write the comic book he had to interview his father about his experiences during the Holocaust. He and his father had never gotten along, but during the many hours of interviews, they developed a relationship for the first time. The comic strips were collected and published in two volumes: Maus: A Survivors Tale, My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (1991). Both books were extremely successful, and in 1992 Spiegelman became one of the first comic book artists to receive a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

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