Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hounded by Kate Bush: A Tribute...

I first learned about Kate Bush as a freshman in college. I learned about her in a way that is embarrassing to admit to but was characteristic of the time: a quiet boy in my dorm with pale blue eyes and an all-black wardrobe (also, in retrospect, a mullet) told me I looked like her.  It was narcissism and a budding crush that inspired me to rush to the record store that same afternoon and pick up a cassette of hers, but I've been fully entranced by her mysterious, beguiling, smoky-eyed, utterly idiosyncratic charms for my own reasons ever since. That year, I even dressed up like Kate Bush and lip-synched to Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) for a celebrity look-alike charity fundraiser, unconcerned that no one in Kansas but the boy with the blue eyes and I seemed to know who she was. Everyone else was dressed up as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper or Simon LeBon, there was a veritable Claire's Boutique warehouse worth of leggings, rubber bracelets, eyeliner and mesh gloves in the room, and because no one knew who I was, I felt beyond cool, channeling Kate’s inimitably hot-and-chilly English persona as best I could.

The Kate Bush album I bought that afternoon was Hounds of Love. The image of her lying on a purple bed with a diaphanous mauve sheet across her chest, her dark hair splayed out around her, pouty lips and two sleek Weimeraners snuggling against her, one gazing up at her lovingly, was jarringly intimate and sensual.  I stared at the woman lying there with her arms around the dogs in the photo - okay, yes, it seemed like she had a post-sex afterglow - and I thought, I could look like her to someone? I was eighteen, fresh from the suburbs, naive, prone to blurting out whatever I was thinking at inappropriate moments (still am), and apparently I also ran off to record stores the moment that I got attention from cute boys: I could look like this confident, sexy, fully-formed woman who stared back at the camera lens, daring the viewer to disapprove of her? As someone who had always sought approval, just the photo itself unraveled me a little.  That I even reminded one person of the woman in the picture was enough to give me the boost I needed to think I was cut from a different cloth that those boring, cookie-cutter people who went to football games in at my dorm. As soon as I was exposed to Kate Bush, I stopped trying to fit in and I found my crowd: the artsy, weird, wonderful misfits came out of the woodwork to meet me and they have ever since.

I really believe that there were two identifiable, seismic inner-shifts I had as a young person that have determined my direction in life ever since: becoming a vegetarian at fifteen and discovering Kate Bush three years later.  Vegetarianism gave me the tools to become the sort of person who was in harmony with her values: Kate Bush with her inspired, bold, thoroughly-engrossed-in-chasing-her-muse example was a different sort of catalyst, teaching me that women could be as seized by an artistic, aesthetic drive as any brilliant male artist.

And the music. The incredible, unearthly sounds that she made. That voice, screeching one moment and guttural the next, changing from a sweet little chirp to a grandiose, swooping vocal in one brief line, Kate's voice expressed a quality I’d not come into yet, which was a person who was fully at home with herself.  In one moment, she could sound like she'd gulped helium, in the next, her voice was indescribably lush and gorgeous. Despite this, it didn't take long to integrate the two, these opposing voices that could exist in one person and be transformative together. Hearing her voice was a little like the first time I had kombucha. At the first sip, I recoiled at the weirdness of it, the distinctly vinegar flavor with the carbonation that made me feel lightheaded, and then I somehow couldn't resist taking another sip. By the third sip of kombucha, it was not only like it was always imprinted as part of my DNA code but I also was hooked. Kate Bush was kombucha to me.

The moment my Walkman's wheels spun the thin black tape and that translated into sound in my headphones, the dorm room around me dissolved and I was in her world. She has been quoted as saying that she wants her music to intrude, and this is an understatement. She was running up a hill, she was haunted by hounds, an angry man threatened her, made us sympathetic to her as a witch, she described with chillingly simple detail something - a person? - moving under ice, alive but desperate to get out, a ghost in her home, murderers. There was the complex instrumentation, too, the creepy rise and fall of the synthesizer in Mother Stands for Comfort (not to mention the disturbing lyrics belying the gentle, almost sleepy singing), the amazing fretless bass throughout that gave me goose bumps to the point where I needed to put on a sweater to listen.  The first time I saw music as being sculptural, as something I could almost reach out, feel, and let wash over me was through Kate Bush's Hounds of Love album that freshman year in college, sitting on my industrial cot in my messy room. I’d loved albums and songs before but this was different. I was spellbound and I wore that cassette down within a few months. I hungrily reached for the rest of her albums, each one leaving me more punch drunk than the previous. Hounds of Love will always be my Kate Bush album, though, because it was my first.

I was a painting major with English major leanings. I had no idea as to how this would translate into the real world of paying bills and supporting myself, but her music assured me that anything was possible. Kate Bush had her first recording contract at sixteen and Hounds of Love, her fifth album, came out when she was 27. This was the first album she self-produced, making it in the studio she built so she could record it at the pace she wanted, exactly as she wanted. Kate Bush’s music resonated so powerfully with me also because of her story: that she was a fierce believer in her right to be heard, to intrude, and to not always sound pretty or ever be packaged as a plaything. Her childlike curiosity, the way that she played with sound like a four-year-old smashing around finger-paints, the way trusted a bold muse with enough confidence that she was willing to fall on her face, helped me to realize that the pursuit of a creative vision should also be damn fun sometimes (when it’s not infuriating), or your results will suffer. It will be anemic and stale: maybe you will have technical proficiency but you won’t inspire. Our culture can hold to firmly to the archetype of the artist as a dour, long-suffering, joyless scold, and Kate, with her feral, playful but also deeply disciplined aesthetic, gave lie to that outdated notion.

Kate Bush was passionate and sensitive, feminine and ferocious in one, petite, totally unshackled form. More than any of the visual artists I studied, she was my inspiration because she was the one who challenged me, as a woman, to intrude. By the time I graduated and left Kansas, I was optimistic and hungry for the future. I had an amazing group of friends who supported and challenged me, I believed in myself for the first time since early childhood. This might have happened without Kate but I don’t like to contemplate a life without her. Years later, at 26, I met my husband. The first night we went out, we bonded on our mutual love of Kate Bush and I knew I’d never have to explain myself to this man. I knew I’d found home. 

Kate is not perfect, of course, because she’s real, flesh-and-blood, not a marketing creation. After the creative burst of her young adulthood, her output has tapered off considerably. She is a reclusive person, living with her husband and son, rarely giving interviews. (This is a sweet one, though, from 1980: yes, Kate is, or at least was, a vegetarian.)  Some of her songs are overwrought and her music videos – oh, her music videos! - are cringe-worthy at best and stand as very good examples of bad performance art from the 1980s. You can’t say that she didn’t put it all out there, though. Ambition and gumption are to be admired in this fearful, self-conscious world. Who knows what kind of astounding music she’s creating, epic songs she’s writing, off alone with her family and her imagination?

The quiet boy in black with the pale blue eyes faded into the background and I don’t think I saw him past my freshman year. I probably fell in love fifty more times that year alone. He left a lasting legacy to inspire me, though: the knowledge of a daring, brilliant, beautiful woman living as an artist, one who refused to do anything but intrude.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Case for Why Vegan Feminists Should Just Rule the World Already

Do I really need to count the reasons why? Yes. Yes, I do.

A real live vegan feminist is the best kind of person to know. This is not opinion: this is scientifically provable fact. She has the most interesting array of friends, knows the best restaurants, books, films and music, and she will make you laugh and laugh with her impressions of stupid, annoying people. The vegan feminist will bring more cultural savvy and belly laughs into your life. Trust this.

While the rest of the world is tittering over the latest antics of a celebrity who is having a public nervous breakdown or psychotic episode, vegan feminists are too busy actively cultivating a whole different reality to notice or care. That's how cool and above it all we are.

We organize vegan bake sales that raise thousands of dollars to make the world a better place in our spare time, and, no, there's not a lot of time to spare what with these misogynist wing-nuts running around everywhere ruining everything. Still, we manage.

We are equally nimble at discussing the intersectionalities of oppression or this really great recipe we found for dairy-free Eggplant Parmesan. Some of us have also been known to talk about the really awesome shoes we found online.

Now that peak oil has come and gone, vegan feminists on bikes will be the incandescent symbol of the new world order. It’s inevitable: we will be the next icons. What? It’s not going to be a violently apoplectic tea partier with a stupid haircut, I guarantee it. Best to befriend a vegan feminist now rather than seem like a johnny-come-lately.

Despite our reputation of being a bunch of sanctimonious scolds, we have a great sense of humor, because, really, how could you live in this world and not have one? We can even laugh at ourselves. For example, how many vegan feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: THAT'S NOT FUNNY.

With possible food shortages looming, vegan feminists are powerful allies. We cannot only make a great dinner out of just basmati rice, kalamata olives, vegetable scraps and a can of coconut milk, and we can organize a kick-ass potluck in our sleep.

We don't sleep, by the way. Too much to do. Like brainstorm meals and organize potlucks.

When life gives us lemons, we make organic, Fair Trade lemonade and we grate the rind for later use so as to not be wasteful, then we sell the lemonade to help support an awesome cause. Why? What do you do with lemons?

Some of us have children, some of us would rather adopt a pack of asocial, peri-menopausal jackals. Some of us wear make up, some consider lip balm an obvious doorway to selling out the sisterhood. Vegan feminists of today like to keep you guessing. In other words, we’re not all wearing hemp power suits and swaying to the dulcet harmonies of the Indigo Girls on our iPods. In other other words, watch what you say.

Looking for a book recommendation? Fiction [Science fiction? Dystopian? Fantasy? Young Adult? Post-modern?] ? Non-fiction? Biography? Memoir? We’ll send you our lists. Is it okay if they’re not alphabetized?

Who’s going to help you move? Who’s going to pick you up from the airport? Who’s willing to sniff the questionable Vegenaise? Well, it might not always be a vegan feminist, but if we say that we will do it, we’ll do it.  Why? Because we are dedicated friends who keep our word and because we are fearless.

Vegan feminists will listen to you complain about your life with sensitivity and understanding but hold you to a high standard of changing the things you can. Because we believe in you, that’s why, and because we don’t coddle.

When a local newscaster smugly narrates forage of a woman stripping to save the polar bears or minks or whatever, do not blame the vegan feminists for the bad press. Nobody consulted us on this.

Who’s starting wars? Who’s undermining unions? Who’s hunting deer and whales? Who’s letting their dogs poop everywhere and not cleaning up after them? Who’s generally screwing things up miserably? Not vegan feminists.

At the end of the day, or even the beginning, we rock because we’re funny, critically engaged, whip-smart, fierce, compassionate and consistent. Vegan feminists are hard at work trying to make the world suck a little less: what other subculture could say the same thing and be able to actually, you know, point to proof of it? 

If vegan feminists ruled the world, there would be beautiful gardens everywhere, Rush, Glenn, and Sarah would be the names of our poodle mixes, and chocolate would be a birthright (it’s all organic, Fair Trade and dark because we rule so we can just call it chocolate now). We’d have to dedicate no time to cleaning up messes caused by stupid, sexist, right-wing windbags and selfish corporate opportunists. What does this mean? More time for creative self-expression, bike rides and potlucks. This is why vegan feminists should just rule the day already.

Who’s with me?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Let's hear it for the weird kids!

After innumerable teacher's conferences, field studies and unsolicited comments lo these past eight years, I’m not leaping to any conclusions here to deduce that my son is perceived as a little strange by society at large. An odd duck. Maybe even weird. Not alarmingly weird, like the kind of boy a mother instinctively shields her own child from weird. On the contrary, he's the sort of boy that mothers tend to want their children to play with, at least that’s what I hear. He's well-behaved, he's witty, he shares well, he's articulate. But he's just...weird.

My son creates elaborate stories involving him and his friends having adventures catching ghosts and aliens and he draws plans for cat hotels with deep, winding underground tunnels. He could name four-syllable dinosaurs from the Cretacious period when he was five but he couldn’t tell you any characters from SpongeBob SquarePants. (Still can’t.) At his preschool, an idyllic place run by a painter almost as an artist’s retreat for young children, my son decided that in the year-end production of The Adventures of Frog and Toad he wanted to depict a Vegan Velociraptor rather than any characters already created. He settled for this as his second choice because his teacher didn't know how to begin to spell the Triassic era’s coelophysis.

Even at this artsy preschool with the bold paintings everywhere and interesting projects always being undertaken, my son was considered odd, not in a negative way, more like he was a rare museum acquisition, a gem to behold. He was adored, he was encouraged, but he was a little…strange. The message that I’ve consistently gotten is that every child is unique, of course, but that my child is a little more unique. “He has a rich inner world,” is how educators typically characterize him.

When he was two, my son burst out crying that whole autumn with the leaves falling from the trees, the life-and-death of it all bringing him to tears. I would tell him that the leaves would come back in the spring and he would point to a pretty red maple one on the ground and sniff, “Not that one.” I had no answer for that. He was far too tender for the local Waldorf school: all their plaintive songs about the cycles of life sent him wailing and scrambling past the pastel scarves to the door. That sensitivity, combined with his singular way of interpreting the world, has worked together to create an unusual child.

When he was three, my son was so spellbound by the Pompeii exhibit at the Field Museum that he insisted that we go straight home and start painting volcanoes immediately. For a year, I drained our library system of every possible volcano-themed book and movie. Every story he told, every drawing he made, my son found a way to bring it back to volcanoes. They reigned supreme until he learned about tsunamis, underwater volcanoes, which led him to deep-sea creatures, dinosaurs and evolution. His first band, created at five with a few of his friends, was called Bronto-Scorpions Don’t Wear Socks, the name of their signature song, with the lyrics being that phrase repeated over and over again.

Now eight, left to his own devices, my son would still have every article of clothing on not only inside-out but backwards. He can describe the movement of the tectonic plates but he has trouble bouncing a ball. He could explain the phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis to you reasonably well but he can’t figure out the mechanics of tying a shoelace for the life of him. He doesn’t care, though, because who has time to tie a shoelace when there are alternate universes to create? Shoelaces are a waste of time. Thank goodness for Velcro.

There is a long literary and cinematic tradition of weird kids – also identified variously as nerds, underdogs, freaks, spazzes – being celebrated as under-appreciated, often long-suffering, ultimately victorious heroes. From Charlie Bucket to the Harry Potter trio, the theme of triumphing over bullies, bad circumstances and danger is something that resonates with the human spirit. We feel emboldened by their courage, buoyed by their independence and uncommon grace. The underdogs’ willingness to forge ahead despite their obvious liabilities is deeply uplifting and we are inspired by the courage with which they take a less-traveled path. We like to imagine that we would do the same in their Velcroed shoes. Well-liked, accomplished and athletic characters aren’t juicy, rich or compelling. Our hearts are with the scrappy, weird ones. We like their spirits, we identify with their struggles and we root for them because if a weird child triumphs, it means that there is some equity and goodness in the world.

Weird kids out in the field, though, face a different reality because their enjoyment of life is contingent on how they are perceived and treated by other children. While almost all children side with Harry Potter over his mean-spirited cousin Dudley, they aren’t always kind to actual flesh-and-blood classmates who don’t fit in. Weird kids often eat alone. They can struggle to make friends without active parental involvement. They are among the last picked as partners or for teams. While the other children are scheduling play dates and squeezing in birthday parties, odd kids often live in a much different social landscape. They don’t necessarily mind this – many are not joiners – but at a certain age, they become aware that their peers have very different social experiences.

The message from adults should be that what makes the so-called weird children of the world tick is also what makes them wonderfully unique individuals and gives them the qualities that will get them far in life. Instead the message is that while it’s great to be different, for their own good, they don’t want to be too different. It is a protective instinct, I think, but I don’t believe it’s what’s best for their evolving spirits. As long as the children are kind and respectful to others, I honestly think that they should be left alone to develop their weird selves.

I would bet that Albert Einstein, Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein were total weirdoes growing up. So were Thomas Edison, Emily Dickenson and Galileo, I’m sure. That sort of obsessive, singular vision, the total immersion not in simply perfecting their craft but becoming pioneers does not happen for those who prioritize fitting in at all costs. Weird kids are often “weird” because they have a different calling altogether. Like the very high-pitched whistles that are imperceptible to most human ears, I think these children hear (and see and think and feel) stuff missed by many others but it is so plainly obvious to them, they can’t help but respond to it.

Many wonderfully strange children of today will grow up to be great innovators, inventors, artists, peacemakers, novelists and problem-solvers. They are often the ones who are driving the world toward progress and new, creative, compassionate ways of thinking and living.

To us, it is perfectly normal that our son has a school for his cat with a daily schedule (kitty nap time, cat math, kitty climbing) on the chalkboard. He plies Clover with catnip and she occasionally indulges him when she’s not hiding behind the radiator. Today my son has Kitty School but in fifteen years, he could be developing curricula for a whole new educational approach. Maybe it will be one that honors and encourages the exquisite weirdness of all pupils.

The future of the world depends on these odd children blazing their new, wonderful, weird paths. Thank goodness for them.