Movie Review: The Edge of Seventeen

I first saw the trailer for The Edge of Seventeen a while back, and thought, Eh, this is okay, but I don’t know if I’m pressed to see it. I am glad I finally watched it because it is a great movie. It is about an unpopular introverted 17-year-old named Nadine whose best friend since second grade, Krista, falls in love with Nadine’s popular older brother Darian. Nadine has been ostracized since she was young, but Krista was her best and only friend during that time, so the fact that Krista begins to prioritize time with Darian over time with Nadine is hurtful to Nadine. Nadine then shuts herself off from the world, and the only person she feels she can trust is her history teacher, Mr.Bruner, who cannot stand her excuses for not turning in homework but still lets her come into his homeroom during lunch and hang out with him since she doesn’t have friends. A guy next to her in class, Erwin, falls in love with Nadine, but Nadine shrugs him off and tries to stay friends with him because she is so busy chasing Nick, a cute guy who works at a pet store called Petland.

This movie taught me a lot of valuable life lessons. Now of course, my high school years were nowhere as stressful as those of Nadine, but I remember being ostracized as a really young kid, and never fitting in. Like Nadine, I was an “old soul”, meaning I had a hard time relating to my peers because I loved environmental science, reading huge books, and classical music, but I never got ostracized for it. I, like Nadine, do however remember closing myself off from people and feeling like I couldn’t relate to my peers. I even remember not wanting to go on an orchestra trip because last time I roomed with a group of girls on a trip the previous year I somehow sensed that one of the girls didn’t like me, and thus the entire group of girls didn’t like me. Turns out that they were actually pretty cool, and when I decided to stay in the hotel room and work on my precalculus homework instead of skiing because I assumed they didn’t want me around, they were kind of sad (my orchestra teacher later called me and hooked me up with a few other trip participants who didn’t want to go skiing, and I ended up having a blast). That experience taught me to never assume people didn’t like me, especially in an age where a lot of people communicate through social media and text. I think a lot of people want more real in-person conversations nowadays because we are so overwhelmed with all these modes of communication (e.g. apps, Facebook, smart phones in general). It reminds me of the film Boyhood, when Mason is talking to his girlfriend before he goes to college and says he wants to quit Facebook because he doesn’t want to live his life behind a screen. I remember not having any social media in high school and feeling like a weirdo, but then also being too busy with schoolwork and orchestra to care about it much. And most kids even told me that I was smart for not being on Facebook, citing that it was a huge waste of time. I also knew that my real friends respected my choice to not use Facebook and would just call me or tell me in person if they wanted to hang out.

If anything, this film taught me the importance of self-love. If you cannot love yourself, you cannot truly love other people, and Nadine struggles with this throughout the film. When Nadine hits puberty she freaks out and gets jealous of Darian just because he seems to be zit-free (and worry-free, too). When she goes to a party with Krista and Darian she ends up not meeting anyone while Krista floats off with people she knows and leaves Nadine hanging. Nadine goes into the restroom and beats herself up for being too awkward for her peers, and ends up calling her mom to pick her up and take her home. In one of the most pivotal scenes in the film, Nadine confronts her brother and tells him that she is afraid that she will never get rid of the things she hates about herself, and that when she looks in the mirror she hates everything about herself. However, there are a couple of people who actually support Nadine: Mr. Bruner and Erwin. Erwin, like Nadine, is awkward, but when he tries to kiss her and Nadine says “no”, he immediately feels bad about what he did and doesn’t do it again. He, like Nadine, isn’t a super popular person, but he is the only guy who actually likes her for who she is and isn’t just interested in her for sex. And yet because Nadine cannot see how beautiful she really is, outside and inside, she thinks Erwin isn’t the right guy for her and keeps chasing Nick. Nick, however, isn’t interested in her and Nadine feels she has to go out of her way to pursue him, so she sends him a sexually explicit Facebook message. He sees it and asks her out, but then when they are in the car, all he cares about is having sex with her. She expects him to just get to know her as a person first, but he isn’t interested in that. This scene taught me that it’s important to not go chasing after love just because you have this ideal vision that you and your crush are going to fall in love immediately.

It also taught me to not compare myself with others. When Nadine and her mom are in the car and Nadine doesn’t want to go to school, her mom tells her to take a deep breath and tell herself the truth behind everyone’s facade of composure and success: everyone is just faking it until they make it, and everyone is just as miserable as Nadine is, and that they are just better at hiding it. This is so true though because even though Darian is ripped and popular, he admits to Nadine that he doesn’t care about her even though he pretended to for their entire life. He, Nadine and their mom are also still trying to survive the death of Nadine and Darian’s father. I am sure that Nick, the seemingly perfect crush of Nadine, was going through a ton of stuff himself. I remember in college and high school feeling so insecure, thinking everyone had more friends than me and had an easier time with their classes than I did. However, what I failed to realize until much later is that these kids’ lives weren’t perfect either and that they were just as ready to walk across that graduation stage as I was because everyone was just about done with school by their senior year. In college, I studied hard but still compared myself to my peers. A lot of the older students had to tell me multiple times that no one had their stuff together and that everyone was just trying to make it in college, but I wouldn’t listen. These constant comparisons I made between me and my peers led me to feel depressed, and I when I got depressed I shut myself away from my peers, thinking it would be pointless to even say “hi” to them because I was too busy thinking about how cool and put-together everyone seemed. After college, part of me wishes I didn’t have to go through such a self-pity party, but another part of me understands that this constant battle with my self-esteem was crucial to my personal development, because it taught me that in the end, I just need to keep killin’ it at whatever I am doing, and to not worry about what others are doing.

This movie reminds me of a book I read called The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins. In the book, Robbins conducts research on high school bullying and proposes a theory called “quirk theory”, which means that the things and characteristics that get kids ostracized when they are in school are the same things that help them achieve success later in life. Nadine reminds me of a lot of the kids in the book because she has a hard time relating to her peers and considers herself an “old soul”, but these qualities could help her a lot in her later life (although she probably wouldn’t have needed to wait long because she actually found a friend in Erwin).

Hailee Steinfeld’s performance was incredible. The last film I saw her in was Pitch Perfect 2 (still haven’t seen her in True Grit yet) but her role was kind of on the side. Seeing her play the lead was awesome because she just brings so much depth to Nadine’s character. This film reminded me of Juno and Lady Bird because the lead characters are so quick-witted and relatable.

The Edge of Seventeen. 2016. Rated R for sexual content, language and some drinking–all involving teens.

Book and Movie Review: for colored girls (In Memory of Ntozake Shange)

A few months ago I watched Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of the choreopoem and play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by the late dancer and writer Ntozake Shange. I have been meaning to write a blog post after seeing the movie because it just possessed so much raw energy for me, and also Ntozake Shange passed away this past October, so I wanted to dedicate this very belated post to her legacy. Disclaimer: the jumbled words on this page will never do justice to her life and her writing.

The film version is about a group of black women living in New York who each have a different story, and they support each other through their shared struggles. The film, I must, say, is a lot easier to appreciate if you read the choreopoem beforehand, and while I thought the film was incredibly moving, I read the poem after and definitely appreciate it more. The film is not an easy watch; the struggles these women endure domestic violence, date rape, PTSD, depression, abortion and drug addiction, struggles that make them spiral deep into depression. Through it all, though, they support one another through and through, and it was enough to have me sniffling like a whiny little crybaby afterwards (I swear, I was a snotty-faced cry-baby towards the end of this film. I couldn’t stop crying after I went to bed.). This film is deeply engrained in my memory, not just because of the incredible cast, but because of their intense battles to survive in a world where their husbands, boyfriends and society treats them like they are worthless and cannot see their beauty. Historically, mental health has a stigma in American culture, particularly in communities of color, and black women have often been portrayed as possessing this super human strength and not giving in to crying because people often see crying as a form of weakness. However, tears are human, and this film and play shows that the “black female” experience doesn’t exist in a monolith, and to pigeonhole all black women’s struggles would mean obscuring all the complex human emotions these black women feel when they have to endure so much pain in their lives. And this film shows that yes, if you’ve gone through a lot of stuff, you’d better be okay with crying it out and not feeling like you have to be silent about your pain, because crying is what makes us human.

The movie was excellent, and it makes me wish I had read the play before seeing it in order to better appreciate the legacy Shange left behind, especially because it gave background information about Shange’s inspiration for her choreopoem. During the 1970s, Shange collaborated with various other women in California who were musicians, publishers, writers and academics. Shange said that her exposure to female writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and taking courses in the Women’s Studies program at Sonoma State College provided her inspiration for her writings about women. She then moved back to San Francisco to study dance, and discovered that dance was an outlet for her to freely express herself as a black woman.

Knowing a woman’s mind & spirit had been allowed me, with dance I discovered my body more intimately than I had imagined possible. With the acceptance of the ethnicity of my thighs & backside, came a clearer understanding of my voice as a woman & as a poet. The freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could continually be approached, though never known, waz poem to me, my body & mind ellipsing, probably for the first time in my life…I moved what waz my unconscious knowledge of being in a colored woman’s body to my known everydayness.

Shange p. xi

Shange joined a troupe of black female dancers called The Spirit of Dance and also worked in the public schools as an adjunct professor in the Ethnic Studies program, and after several performances with the troupe, she left the company to begin production of for colored girls. She began the play as a series of seven poems. The seven black women who would each tell their stories in these poems did not have names because Shange wanted the viewer to focus on the narratives rather than the names of the characters (the colors of their dresses represent their characters). Shange and her choreography partner Paula Moss staged the play in various spaces in the San Francisco area: the Women’s Studies’ departments, bars, cafes, and poetry centers. Many people came to see the play in its early performances, but when Moss and Shange moved to New York to take for colored girls to the stage there, only their friends and family came for the showings. One of these friends was Oz Scott, who helped Shange and Moss stage the production for a New York audience, and as time went on, Shange also recruited more poets and dancers who were interested in the production. In December of 1975, when they put for colored girls on at a bar called DeMonte’s, Shange had let Scott take over the directing of the play, and when she did this, she let her creation grow on its own, and said that “as opposed to viewing the pieces as poems, I came to understand these twenty-odd poems as a single statement, a choreopoem” (Shange xiv). She also learned the importance of putting those poems on a stage instead of just writing it in a book (“those institutions I had shunned as a poet-producers, theaters, actresses, & sets–now were essential to us”, Shange xiv).

Honestly, reading this entire foreword to the play has not just helped me appreciate Shange’s for colored girls, but also the performing arts as a whole. Dance is such an important avenue for our bodies to express themselves, and works well with other mediums of performing art, such as music and theatre. For black women, dance is especially powerful because it allows for that freedom of expression that American society didn’t always allow for black women. Misty Copeland, for instance, made history as a black ballerina in predominantly-white spaces, but she had to struggle hard to access these spaces since she grew up without racial or class privilege that her fellow ballerinas benefited from. Even when she struggled with body image issues, she learned to accept her curves and not try to fit into mainstream stereotypes of ballerinas. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is another prominent example; a few years ago, I was doing a paper on dance for a philosophy course, and I used this performance that the theater put on for Ailey’s work “Revelations”. The performance is not only incredibly lovely, but it also conveys the importance of dance for black artists like Shange. The dancers in “Revelations” own the entire space onstage, so they have the freedom to move however much they want. The video goes back to African-American music traditions, namely gospel and blues, using traditional songs such as “Wade in the Water”. Seriously, even though I have watched this video more than once, it still moves me to see these beautiful artists carve out this space for their own, where they can celebrate the beauty of being African-American.

If you haven’t seen for colored girls yet, I recommend it, but I also recommend you read the choreopoem first if you can score a copy of it. I was better able to contextualize the movie when I read the play afterwards. And here is the trailer for for colored girls. I still get chills every time I watch it. Rest in Peace, Ntozake Shange and may your powerful legacy live on in the lives of young women and young black women everywhere.

for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem by Ntozake Shange. 64 pp.

For Colored Girls. 2010. Rated R for some disturbing violence including a rape, sexual content and language.

In Honor of Earth Day

I could have posted billions of articles about saving the planet, but my main focus ever since doing my senior thesis on how climate change affects low-income communities (and especially communities of color) is environmental justice, or what happens when people of color and low income people have greater access to clean air, water and environmental education. When searching for articles on Earth Day, therefore, I searched for articles specifically tackling environmental injustice in socially marginalized communities, namely the Black community.

The Root just came out recently with such a piece:

Of course, this isn’t the only day to pay respect to our Planet Earth. Every day we should take some action to help the planet. However, not everyone is able to do this, and so that’s why the Environmental Justice movement is so important. It has given historically oppressed communities a chance to voice their concerns and work together to speak out and say “Enough is enough.”

Book rec: The Environment and the People in American Cities by Dorceta Taylor is an excellent book that differentiates between conservationist environmental movement and the urban environmental movement. It discusses how conservationists often focused on preserving national parks and forests, but urban environmental movements focused on the correlation between class, race and gender inequalities and access to clean air, water and other environmental goods. Taylor really delves into a lot about the movement and gives extensive insight into a very important issue that is still relevant today.

Movie Review: Authenticity, Social Norms, and Art in Big Eyes

I just finished the film Big Eyes and it left me with a lot of questions to consider: what is the purpose of creating art? If you are not a big self- promotional person, does that make you any less of an artist if you enjoy staying out of the spotlight? What are the emotional costs to success in the creative world, and how can you establish boundaries when people try to push you to give up that authentic little spark that goes into your art?

Big Eyes is based on the true story of Margaret Keane, an American painter based in San Francisco whose husband, Walter, sold her paintings and gave himself credit even though he promised her that the two of them were going to work as a team. In the film, we see Margaret Ulbrich furiously rushing to shove her paintings and her daughter, Jane, in her car because she needs to leave an incredibly abusive husband. They leave Northern California for San Franscisco, where she meets up with her friend Dee-Ann. Back in the 1950s, social norms frowned upon women who left their husbands without jobs lined up, so Margaret lands a job painting on furniture at a furniture company while also selling her work at local art fairs. Margaret’s art features children with big sad eyes staring at the viewer, and as the real Margaret Keane reveals in the bonus DVD feature “The Making of Big Eyes” she painted sad children because she herself was sad. She had just left an abusive marriage and didn’t have many friends other than her daughter and Dee-Ann.

At one of the art fairs, she struggles to sell her paintings, and when she negotiates $2 to paint a little boy, the boy’s dad says he’ll give her $1 instead for painting him (at the time, American society traditionally viewed women as caretakers, and often didn’t take female artists seriously). But then she notices this painter named Walter Keane selling paintings like hotcakes. He comes over to her and tells her she’s not being promotional enough, and tries to convince Jane to let Margaret paint her (Jane soon tells him she’s Margaret’s daughter). When Margaret reveals she is separated from her husband, the two immediately start a relationship and within a short time they are married. Dee-Ann tells Margaret she thinks something is fishy with them marrying in a short time, but Margaret says she thinks Walter is sweet and will take care of her.

Walter then brings his scenic paintings to Ruben, an art dealer, and he immediately rejects them because, according to Ruben, no one wants landscape paintings anymore. They want abstract paintings and not literal street scenes. When he shows him Margaret’s paintings, he gives her credit but Ruben still rejects them. So then Walter takes them to a jazz club and the owner at first rejects them, but then because Walter is a pushy outgoing person, he convinces Banducci, the owner, to buy them, and one night while waiting outside the restrooms for people to ask about the paintings, a couple comes up and asks him who painted the children with large eyes, and so Walter takes credit (and pay) for it because he is desperate and knows Margaret isn’t a self-promotional person and wouldn’t feel comfortable telling people she did it. Honestly, all Margaret wants to do is paint and spend time with her daughter, but Walter has a completely different idea about success, one that involves about 99.9% promotion and about maybe .01% actually doing the work. Unlike Margaret, Walter waits for inspiration instead of actually doing his own work (we later see this clearly in a much later scene). Margaret actually has a reason for painting the children and she puts her energy into her work rather than just talking about and pitching ideas like Walter does.

I cannot fully relate to Margaret, but I totally understand why she didn’t speak up at the beginning. She had just left an abusive marriage and just wanted someone who wouldn’t beat her. However, as we find throughout the film, Walter is a fraud and was just as toxic as Margaret’s ex-husband was, and even more so because he promised her all these nice things (money, a nice home, fame) and they did get those things like he promised. He also promised her she would be living the dream of just making art and not having a day job. However, Margaret knows her limits even though she doesn’t listen to them, and to make essentially Walter more famous (and to keep her marriage with him) she sits in the room all day painting for hours children with sad eyes. Because she is producing so many paintings, she doesn’t take breaks and thus doesn’t have room to just think about how to most authentically express her own self through these paintings. In one key scene she tells him that art is personal. The children with sad big eyes come from her own feelings of sadness, and to give this not sad (in fact, overly zealous) man credit for her work means giving up a key part of herself to impersonal world of mass production, fancy parties, and small talk. Margaret only wanted a happy marriage, and she did eventually end up in a happy marriage after leaving Walter, but in a way, she went through this experience so that she could help inspire other artists who felt threatened in any way into lying about their work or letting someone else take credit for it, particularly women.

Nowadays, we take it for granted that we can promote ourselves through social media and sell our work online. However, there were no computers at the time, and so Margaret couldn’t just put up a Skillshare video showing people how to paint children with big eyes on the Internet. Also, this made me wonder how I, as an introverted musician, should promote myself even though I don’t really enjoy self-promotion. Does not playing in gigs all the time not make me a musician? What if I just love music for its own sake? What if I just want to play for others because I love it? In one scene Margaret is walking in a grocery store and finds a grand display of her work in commercialized style. There are postcards, posters, all sorts of inexpensive paraphernalia with her art on it. And the display is labeled in big bold letters “Walter Keane”, showing how the situation has gotten out of hand and that although Walter promised her work would get famous, it became mass produced and lost a lot of its quality. And let’s face it; not everyone liked Margaret’s paintings, and everyone was pretty divided on whether one could consider her work to be “real art” (whatever the hell that means). But after seeing this display, Margaret actually sees customers in the store as having big eyes like the children in her paintings. I saw the trailer and thought, after seeing the woman in the grocery store with big eyes, thought, “Ehhh…I don’t know if this is going to give me nightmares.” But after seeing this film, I really did feel for Margaret because in this moment, we see how this entire scheme messed her life up. It not only ruined her friendship with Dee-Ann and her relationship with her daughter (she forbids her daughter Jane from going into her studio and lies, telling her that it’s Walter’s studio and those are his paintings). It also ruined her self-esteem. I know she had this silent strength for ten years, but Walter was incredibly toxic and Margaret thought how many women at the time did: that their husbands were going to take care of them and they should just stay quiet and stay at home. This scene, along with the incredible score by Danny Elfman, conveys all of the complicated feelings Margaret has about her relationship with Walter, and more-over, her relationship with her art.

There was a wonderful composer named Melanie Bonis. She was one of the crucial composers to bridge the gap between Romantic and Impressionistic music, and from a young age she taught herself to play piano. However, because of gender norms at the time, her parents frowned on her passion and wanted her to just live with a husband. Even though she produced several works throughout her life, Melanie Bonis, like Margaret, really didn’t want to become famous, but really just wanted to produce art. At the time, you had to be extremely self-promotional to get anywhere as an artist, but Mel B wasn’t super self-promotional (she named herself Mel because women weren’t taken seriously as composers, so she had to shorten her name so she could gain access to the male-dominated world of composers. The only other Mel B I know of is Mel B from The Spice Girls). Because she wasn’t all about promoting herself, no one really knows about her, not even me. I wanted to play more female composers because I was done just playing pieces written by men (not that there’s anything wrong with Bach or Debussy; it’s just that times are changing and people are becoming more aware that the classical world has often put up barriers against composers who are often underrepresented in the field). So that’s how I came across Mel B; I just googled “female composers” and IMSLP had a long list of them (thank goodness for IMSLP). Just because Mel didn’t promote herself a lot doesn’t mean her works stunk. I love playing her Cello Sonata because it just has this richness to it, and a lot of people just haven’t heard of Mel B, so I wanted to dig her out from the trenches and play her music since I haven’t played it before. Same goes for other less well-known women composers such as Florence Price and Dora Pejacevic; their music is beautiful and I honestly wish I had encountered them sooner.

Now, of course, it wouldn’t be fair for me to reduce Big Eyes to a movie about a woman letting a man walk all over her. In “The Making of Big Eyes” feature the screen writers said that they kept asking “Why did Margaret let Walter take credit for her work for so long?” and from that there were so many other questions that the movie addresses: what is love? what is art? what is criticism? Interestingly, Walter is very bad at taking criticism because he hasn’t produced his own art to show to the public. When you just rely on charisma, you don’t really prove anything. Margaret, however, tells him straight up after finding he painted over the name of the actual artist for those street scene paintings he sold, that “the more he lies, the smaller he seems”. Of course, I was snapping my fingers every time she spoke out against his nonsense because she let him do it for ten years and it really hurt her. But unlike Walter, Margaret handles criticism by continuing to paint. I think what has helped me as a musician is not saying, “Ah, I can’t play Tchaikovsky, I give up”. I work on what needs to be improved and keep playing different kinds of music. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how this movie really drilled it into my head this very key lesson: you must always do your own work. Never try to copy someone else. Yes you can seek inspiration, but in the end you need to produce your own ideas so you don’t end up plagiarizing someone else’s. And yes, you need to know your worth and yes, it’s okay to want to sell your art and get paid for your work. However, if people poo-pooh your work, it’s very important to not let other people’s criticism make you feel like any less of an artist. And having a day job doesn’t make you any less of an artist, either. Elizabeth Gilbert said that artists should work at their day jobs so that they don’t have to just support themselves with their art. Because as the film shows, if you support yourself with your art, you need to also take care of yourself and not become so immersed in the business aspect that you forget the sheer reason why you wanted to make art in the first place.

Big Eyes. 2014. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.

Embracing Solitude Instead of Running Away from It

Today I was thinking about the difference between solitude and loneliness. It seems to me, and this is just my own perception as an introvert, that a lot of us have a hard time spending time by ourselves because our society is so hyper-connected. I love spending time with people, but I am also an empath, and tend to feel very drained when I don’t take time to just sit in solitude and just create. Knit, play music, read, write, watch a movie. I didn’t even really want to get on my phone today because I just wanted to savor the silence while working. The monotony of tasks can be very therapeutic in a way, and this silence and monotony not only helped me get work done, but also it helped spark so many creative ideas in my head.

I wanted to learn more about how people differentiated between solitude and loneliness. I watched a TED Talk about the epidemic of loneliness, and while I thought the speaker made very good points about how people are lonelier today even with all this social media and cell phones that are supposed to keep us connected, I also thought, Well, what if the solution isn’t always to just go out and meet more people to curb loneliness, but just to embrace the times when we are by ourselves instead of viewing it as loneliness? I understand if someone needs to use social media for long distance or international long distance relationships and friendships and relationships with family, but sometimes if you don’t need social media or texting it’s okay to call people on the phone. It’s okay to sometimes stop by for a visit. I am guilty of texting just as much as anyone else, but I’m starting to get extremely exhausted by the idea of texting. It just feels so impersonal, and when I go see someone in person instead I feel better than if I just spoke with them through an emotionless text. I’m trying to do less texting, and while I may slip up, I’ve noticed I feel better when I haven’t tried to please people and answer every single text the minute it comes in. I know it’s rude to not answer texts right away, but I would rather wait to answer someone instead of answer in a snappy “Don’t bother me, what do you want?” kind of way, because I have done this before and it’s frankly not fun.

I think there’s a lot of people who don’t mind spending time alone, and I’m one of those people. I have always loved carving out time to myself, and even though I have connected with so many people I find I can be calmer and more rational when I take time to just get away from the busy chatter and write some freelance poetry or even just stare off into space and daydream. Daydreaming is beautiful; I think we should all daydream more, but I know it’s a luxury and many people are too busy too take time to daydream. But that’s why I love being in solitude a lot; I know too much solitude can lead to loneliness, but it really depends on how you see it. A lot of times we think if someone is sitting alone then they are lonely; as an anxious person in college, I tried to sit with everyone I saw who was sitting by themselves without understanding that sometimes, people just want to be by themselves. Then again, I have approached random folks to sit with them when they are by themselves and it ended up being a good thing because I became friends with a few of those individuals simply because I went up and said hello. So it’s really not super clear-cut whether people are lonely or cool with being by themselves. Honestly, in retrospect, I wish I was more comfortable being alone. I assumed that wanting solitude was bad just because I saw everyone socializing all the time my first year, but after a few years I realized that it’s okay to dance, dream, read, eat, sleep, knit, create, live alone sometimes so that when you do hang out with people, you get to appreciate their time more because you have learned to appreciate yours. In solitude, I come to respect myself and learn more about what I want out of life. In the dark depths of depression, in the hell that is loneliness, I couldn’t be by myself. It’s why I often had my headphones in because I couldn’t bear to be alone with my thoughts. I felt that, even if the people around me loved me dearly, I felt somehow empty, unloved, that I didn’t belong. It wasn’t other people; it was my own mind telling me that I didn’t belong, that no one cared about me, that I should just be alone and miserable. In solitude, I never had to run away from myself. I returned to my inner child, my muse, the one who always inspires me to keep going even in the darkest of times. I could confront my inner demons and express them through my personal creation of art.

Overcoming this deep horrendous battle with depression really made me understand that solitude allows me to be the best creative that I can. Some of the best ideas were created in solitude, not loneliness. I tend to be creative when I’m not on my phone all the time. Even though I don’t have Facebook anymore, I really don’t care, because being on Facebook and missing all my friends was just making me lonely. Now I write in a gratitude journal how appreciative I am during those moments of solitude when I get to curl up in a chair with a nice up of tea and just enjoy a good book .I don’t feel guilty or ashamed anymore because I know that this solitude will probably not come back for a while, so I try to make the most of each small moment while I can. I think we could all benefit from solitude; eventually, at some point in your life, you need to be comfortable with your own thoughts. It’s easier said than done, but when the people in your life pass away or leave in some other way, feeling that grief is a nightmare and most times you want to just curl up in fetal position and no longer exist. But solitude allows one to reflect, to just accept that tears are normal, and that in this moment of loss, you have the ability to still create, and create even more in memory of this person’s presence. You get to use solitude to reflect, to return to yourself, and ultimately, to live your best life.

Here is just one of the TED Talks I saw about embracing solitude:

On Being a Perfectionist

I admit it: I am a perfectionist. I constantly am trying to polish things until they are golden, until you can’t see anything wrong with them. I did it throughout college because I was so hung up on my imperfections early on in school that I felt I needed to cover them up by only producing work that I thought people wouldn’t give me criticism about. Truth is, though, when you’re a writer, artist or any person in any career, you cannot avoid criticism. You can’t even avoid your inner critic. While your inner critic can help you take less risks sometimes, it can also hold you back. There were times I wouldn’t go for performance opportunities or wouldn’t sell my writing because I assumed if it wasn’t perfect (whatever that means) then no one would read it. But if you try to base your expectations on what, in your own microcosmic little brain, you think people are going to think of you, then you end up procrastinating and not doing any work at all.

Which is why I scoured the Internet for tips on overcoming impostor syndrome and perfectionism, which are very closely linked, and instead of watching Sarah’s Key like I was going to do (I thought about all the tears I would shed in my sleep after watching a movie about the Holocaust, so I opted to watch the film during the day at a later time) I watched three brilliant Ted Talks about overcoming impostor syndrome and perfectionism. The first I watched was by Lou Solomon, a communications expert who spoke on overcoming her own battle with impostor syndrome. For those who don’t know impostor syndrome is this really sinister feeling many successful people have that one day, someone is going to come knocking on their door and take away their trophies and tell them, “You only got to where you are because of luck”. Impostor syndrome tells us to erase any memory of the accomplishments we achieved in our lives, and so we end up feeling stifled in terms of creativity. Lou said that she grew up with an alcoholic dad who constantly made her feel small, but that even the clients she works with had happy childhoods but took on careers that require you to constantly receive criticism (namely artists. I can attest as you know by now). Lou talks about how she thought she had the perfect career in communications and didn’t have any problems, but then she reached a breaking point when she was just burned out constantly over work, so she finally did something out of her comfort zone and reached out to her friend for help.

Lou also says that embracing your “Radical hero”; she called her inner critic Ms. Vader (after Darth Vader) and her radical hero was Betty Lou. Unlike Ms. Vader, who placed restrictions on Lou, Betty Lou cursed and didn’t take any B.S. I remember taking a workshop on impostor syndrome in college with a friend and we thought about creating a story together where we personified our emotions into real-life women (think Angry Anna, Stressed-Out Sandra, etc. You can do the same with any gender identity though.) From time to time, I have personified my anxieties and doubts and it has served as catharsis. Betty Lou says that the most important thing to do in order to succeed in life is to fail, live, love and ask for help. She grew up in a family where vulnerability is seen as weakness, but overtime she had to learn that in order to do one’s best work we have to ask for help, we have to go outside our comfort zone and share our experiences so that we can help someone else. As someone who struggled with mental health, I know it’s hard to share your experiences with people, but I always feel good knowing that someone else feels inspired to just keep living even just by me opening up about my experience with mental health and perfectionism.

Another video I saw was David Rae interview rapper Macklemore (aka Ben Haggerty) about his career, his songwriting process and what advice to give to artists about perfectionism. In the interview, Macklemore shares his past struggles with drug addiction and says that he had to get sober so that he could produce his best work, and that while the process of recovery hasn’t been perfect it has helped him keep living. During the interview the audience also saw live footage of Macklemore feeling sick backstage and going into the restroom quickly to vomit (he had food poisoning) and then going quickly onstage in his super expensive-looking costume. It’s hard to sit through to see Macklemore in pain like that, but it showed me how it’s important to see the truth behind being a musician and not hold on to this stubborn mainstream belief that being a musician is easy and comfortable. Macklemore couldn’t cancel his show, he said he just had to hope that he wouldn’t vomit in front of people onstage. I often still hold on to romantic beliefs about being a musician, even a background musician for a famous singer or rapper, but truth is, it’s just as important to gain insight into what goes on backstage as it is to see the actual performance. Performing is nerve-wracking; as a musician, I can attest, and especially if it’s classical music, which tends to be perfection-driven. But after performing for many years I can say this: not everyone is going to like your stuff. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best every day, but just don’t assume that you have to get everyone to like your work the first time around. I, like many people, have faced consistent rejection in my early years, and by my mid 20s I had grown complacent with just doing as I was told because not doing as I was told would earn me harsh rebuke.

And yes, you always need to be working on something, even with your day job. But at the end of the day, I write because I love to write, and Macklemore stresses this a lot in the Ted Talk interview. He says that he looked up several quotes on perfection before coming to the Ted Talk, but the most important thing he learned as a songwriter was that the thing that can kill you is if you let your perfectionism stop you from beginning in the first place. It takes courage to write a good song, and the most challenging thing is to look at a blank piece of paper and not feel like you have it in you to just write something. Macklemore says that writing was challenging when he first started at 16 and it’s challenging even at 30 because he has such a high expectation for his art and his potential, which is why he’s so wildly successful. But he says you just have to start writing, and when it sounds like the best it can be, you can put the finishing touches on it and just call it a day. I still remember reading about how the singer-songwriter Joss Stone writes every day even when it seems she doesn’t have perfect songs. When asked how she knows when she’s finished a song she says

I’m probably the worst person to ask that cause I have the most boring answer, I literally write a song until I run out of ideas and then that’s the song [ laughs] I deliberately, unconsciously don’t take too much time on that because I’ve done it in the past, and trust me you can do it. I’ve made records that took me a year to finish, I’ve written 70 songs and picked 12. Are they better records? No. The process was just more involved, careful and less enjoyable. Now I like using my first thought because they’re usually the best. Once you start thinking and honing it, you question yourself and the most raw version of yourself, thinking it’s not good enough. But guess what, it is your best version. If something sounds like sh*t, you just don’t put it out. I don’t even know if anything’s really finished, it’s just a moment.

“No Plan, No Problem: An Interview with Joss Stone”

She does what Ira Glass, Macklemore, Sam Smith and just about every other successful person does: they just do a lot of work Also, it doesn’t help to just sit alone and write. You need to share it with people so you can get feedback on it. In college, I was constantly getting criticism: during private lessons, when I got my papers back from professors, any time of day I was getting constructive feedback. But after college, I lost that creative soul that needed to be fed and listened to my depression tell me my work wasn’t good anymore and that I should just retire. But you have to just get out of that mindset that everyone needs to like, see or comment on your work the first time. If you’re really passionate about something, you’re going to put in the work to do it regardless of whether you’re tired, depressed, or stressed. Even if I was to get sick, I would still take care of myself, but that wouldn’t stop me from writing at least something.

And yes, I do slip up sometimes and end up choosing to take better care of myself over honing my craft (sometimes, putting the tools down and just recovering from the common cold actually does help you re-focus on your craft, although you need to be the judge about this because missing too many days can become a habit). But as Macklemore says, and this goes for anyone of an profession: don’t let unhealthy standards dictate your work. Just start something, anything. Just don’t let this nagging inner critic tell you to not bother producing anything because you have an important voice that needs to be shared and creating art is what makes us human. What would things have been like if Macklemore hadn’t taken his song “Same Love” and showed it to Ryan Lewis? Macklemore says in the interview that he originally wrote the song from the perspective of a gay youth, but Ryan Lewis told him to instead write about how he feels about LGBTQ+ discrimination, just from his own perspective as a straight man. Not trying to speak for LGBTQ+ youth and instead sharing his own perspective on how he’s seen homophobia in the media and his own observations through life really encouraged a lot of people, especially LGBTQ+ people. And sure, he may have gotten criticism for the song, like all artists do at some point, but regardless of how one feels about the song (I’m queer and while I didn’t enjoy hearing him use a homophobic slur in the song, I understood that he was trying to make a point to show how bad anti-gay discrimination has been in this country).

The last TedTalk I watched was one by Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., whose research focuses on creating innovative programs for people to handle stress better. In this talk, she asks us a seemingly simple but actually hard-to-answer question: is there such a thing as healthy perfectionism? She talks about the different triggers for perfectionism, including body image, grades and family expectations. Body image is a big one because even with the ever-growing body positivity movement and more stores having plus-size clothing and models, girls still feel that they have to have a certain weight or look to be successful, and that eating disorders are very common among young women in school. Indeed, I remember beating myself up over my body for a long time. I also remember that when I was younger, before I got to fifth grade, I didn’t care about whether I could make perfect grades. But after nearly flunking out of 5th grade, like I said earlier, I tried to make up for that by overstudying until I practically got no sleep, until I felt getting eight hours of sleep a night was lazy and that I wasn’t working hard enough. I remember actually doing poorly in 5th grade because I was staying up trying to figure out why I had suddenly hit a snag in my math skills, and this lack of sleep affected my self-esteem, how I interacted with my peers and teachers, everything. In college, I set myself up for making A’s because I didn’t want my past failures to show, but I actually ended up procrastinating when I focused on waiting until I had the perfect first paper to turn in my work. I subsequently ended up falling behind in much of my course work. Dr. Domar talks about one young woman who was so focused on excelling at sports in school that she didn’t sleep, didn’t eat well, and didn’t make time for friends, and as a result she burned out and dropped out of college because she felt that she failed to do everything perfectly. I remember sacrificing a lot to be the best student and orchestra player, and it nearly killed me. Literally. I have learned in retrospect that while it’s great to pursue your passion, you also need to make money from doing an imperfect day job (e.g. dish-washing, waiting tables, working corporate) to make the dough needed to pay for gas money and other expenses needed to cover that passion. Passion isn’t free, and even for this blog I had to pay for the domain. Even for cello, I need to pay money to go to summer camps, even to gigs (gas money, transportation). Working a day job is a form of self-care for me to some extent because I do not have to worry when my next paycheck will come in or whether I will have savings for an emergency that comes up. As much as sports, music activities, and courses matter on resumes, you also need to show folks you can calmly deal with a snappy customer or two.

Dr. Domar also says that having gratitude is important because when we compare ourselves to others constantly, we are a. forgetting that we don’t know other people’s situations and they’re only portraying what they want to on social media because their day-to-day life isn’t perfect. and b. we forget that sometimes we do have it a lot better than other people. I look at the news everyday because I have so much down time at work, and when the government shutdown happened I at first was complaining about my job, but then I read news stories and saw photos of government employees struggling to get by with no paychecks coming in, and I really had to swallow my pride and be grateful. Yes, you shouldn’t be complacent, and you should strive to keep getting better opportunities. However, it’s important to remember that what may seem like a huge problem to you may be pennies to someone else who has gone through much worse. As I mentioned in a previous post, even as a struggling musician, I have to remember that I had access to private lessons, access to great mentors, and went to schools that, despite budget cuts, really worked hard to keep arts programs going. I know many musicians who do not have this luxury. That’s why I’ve found keeping a gratitude journal helps, and I know I’m back in that funk when I haven’t written in that gratitude journal for a while.

The Film Composer Who Inspired Me to Keep Writing

In this incredible video, film composer Germaine Franco talks about what it takes to be a film composer in Hollywood. I was frustrated with my music career before watching this video, but hearing Franco talk about how she overcomes writer’s block and just keeps working extremely hard everyday has inspired me to keep going. She says that she started off as an orchestra musician and thought she was going to be an orchestra musician, but then realized she always had a passion for writing her own music, so she started writing for her own Latin jazz group. Here are some of the excellent lessons I took away from this video:

  • Work on as much writing as you can so that you can be ready. Don’t figure it out when you get your first gig. This is important for me as a musician and as a writer because I sometimes worry that I’m not good enough to play more pieces, so I would just focus on Schumann’s Cello Concerto. But I have learned that if you want to make it as a musician, you can’t always play it safe. You have to explore lots of different kinds of writing, lots of different kinds of music. The reason so many folks in Hollywood are successful is that they keep working every day on something, even if it doesn’t get a lot of accolades, they just keep working at it.
  • Get up early and work on your writing. Franco gets to the studio around 7 am, doesn’t check emails until lunch, and just writes. She says that you can’t worry about whether your writing is perfect at the beginning because you have a deadline you need to meet, so you just need to keep writing, working with different instruments and sounds. I find myself often checking emails a lot, and that it really stifles my creativity when I check emails every day, so I find when I don’t check my emails a lot I’m able to get a lot of writing in, especially during my break time at work.
  • It really, really helps to spend some time in Hollywood if you want to write for film. There are many other places such as Nashville, your home town, Europe, but most people who work in Hollywood spend some time (if not all the time) in Los Angeles. At first, this was hard for me to wrap my head around because as things are now with the economy, it would be hard for me to move to Los Angeles, especially because it is pricing out low and middle income folks. But I am not giving up. I am stubborn like that, so I am still determined to get to Los Angeles somehow even if it’s just for a few weeks.
  • You need a mentor. When Franco moved to LA she didn’t know anyone but she kept working and working and meeting people in the business who connected her with other composers in the business, so she was able to take all of these incredible opportunities. I have learned this throughout my life as a musician, as a student, as a person. Just keep collaborating with others, always ask for help and be open to receiving constructive criticism so you can improve your craft.
  • Even when you don’t have a gig yet, work on your own personal library. This was incredibly inspiring advice to me because sometimes I feel that if I’m not performing my music that it means nothing. But a lot of times, most of the successful folks in the business keep working at their craft, they keep working on their own music, their own stuff, and then when they’re ready with their own portfolio, then they are able to get those opportunities. But if you just wait for inspiration to strike, you’re just kind of letting your talent grow dormant and just remain untapped. People nowadays don’t care about perfection; they just want someone who can meet deadlines and get work done. If they don’t like your writing, that’s fine. You just need to figure out what you could do better at and just keep writing. Basically, you can’t take things personally and you need to just keep doing a lot of work each day, whether you think it sounds good or not.
  • Sometimes, it’s ok to step away from your work for a few days and come back to it, but a lot of the time you don’t have that luxury, so you just need to keep pushing past that writer’s block and just keep going. This was inspiring because I love to write and have always written since I was young, but I hit a snag in my 20s when I was just done turning in papers for grades and so I became a perfectionist, thinking if I didn’t have experience then it wasn’t worth my time to apply for certain jobs. But a lot of times, when you’re struggling to make ends meet, you got to speak from your heart. Yes, grammar, editing is important, but not everyone has the luxury of just crafting their work until it’s perfect. What’s most important is just working on something, even if you’ve set these unreasonably high expectations for how your writing is supposed to be the first time. Also, you don’t have the luxury of beating yourself up when you have writer’s block. You just have to keep going.

Well, It’s Official: Orchestra Musicians Are No Better Off Than Retail Employees

Today I was doing some research about orchestras and unions because I had heard about so many orchestras protesting the problems they have with pay-cuts and other bad things with management. In Jacobin Magazine on March 19 of this year, Isaac Silver interviewed three Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians who were just one of many CSO musicians on strike after, just last week on March 10, their contracts expired. Honestly I feel very fortunate to have come across this article because it is one of the few times I think in which someone is overtly talking about class issues in classical music and not apologizing for it. Too often the language around class and income in the classical music industry is often obscured. You hear about actors, dancers and other entertainers having to wait tables or bar-tend while taking auditions, or rock musicians working at cinemas so they can play with their band. However, I don’t really hear many classical musicians talk about the tables they had to wait while auditioning, and oftentimes I know classical musicians who feel ashamed if people in their circle know they worked those kinds of jobs.

However, the cities where you have these big-name orchestras, such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, are becoming more expensive and less hospitable to low- and middle-income folks (heck, even those in the $100,000 bracket are finding it hard to live in these cities), so it’s imperative that the elephant in the concert hall (aka class) makes some noise. This is also happening at a time when retail and fast food workers are striking out because they want higher wages. At a Walmart in Canada, for instance, a 17 year old Walmart employee who had been working at the company for over a year and a half, announced on the intercom to customers that Walmart management treated its workers unfairly and that “no one should work here–ever”. The employee already had another job lined up and put in his two weeks notice ahead of time. Several Sonic employees in Ohio walked out during their shifts to protest–once again–bad management and an extremely low minimum wage ($4 per hour, lower than Ohio’s $8.55 minimum wage). Bernie Sanders has been fighting for a greater minimum wage for a long time now, and service employees in general are fighting for a national minimum wage of $15.

Now, with all this said, I am not saying the struggles of orchestra musicians are the same as retail employees. My job working as a barista didn’t cost anything other than checking my sense of entitlement at the door. Owning a musical instrument, however, can be very expensive. If your strings break, you have to repair them. If something happens during a storm and your instrument goes out of tune or breaks, you need to shell out money for a luthier to fix it. With barista money it’s hard to afford nice instruments, so I think I have some privilege with my classical music background in that sense. And I also think that orchestra musicians are going to really need to start talking about class more. Heck, all classical musicians need to talk about money, because orchestras rely on private benefactors, not the government, to stay alive. If those benefactors pass away, who is going to keep funding these orchestras? I understand I addressed this last post, but this topic has been on my mind for quite some time.

According to Clara Takarabe, one of the CSO musicians on strike

Though some musicians have a keen consciousness that they are part of the working class and the labor movement, those musicians are in the minority. Higher education and music schools do not educate musicians to have historical consciousness of class strife, labor movements, economic history, or much more.

Most of music education is steeped in music history, which can be quite divorced from the bigger context. That needs to change. I have proposed to some local music departments to teach a class on labor unions. Deans I have been in contact with have responded by saying they have entrepreneurship classes, which misses the point.

I feel fortunate because I studied ancient history which in which class language and conflict is quite overt — there is no disguising what is going on. However, in the arts, ideas of pleasure, leisure, prestige: all this muddles the real issues at hand.

“Class Struggle at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra”

This quote really hit the nail on the head, and it’s one of the few times I have heard a classical musician actually straightforwardly address the lack of education around issues of class and income. I think this is sad especially because it also ties into the lack of racial diversity in today’s orchestras. Even though there have been more initiatives to get more Black and Latino orchestra players, it is incredibly hard to break into the industry because doing so requires an incredible amount of financial resources, no matter how good the person auditioning is. There is an article about the partnership between the University of Cincinnati’s College of Music and the Cincinnati Symphony to recruit more Black and Latino orchestra musicians, and in the article Janelle Gelfand talks about an African-American double bassist named Ian Saunders who had to work four jobs all at once to pay for his undergraduate degree in Bass Performance. He wasn’t able to attend classical music summer festivals because he had to work during these summers to pay for his tuition and instrument. Although Saunders played violin for 10 years, the university that gave him a scholarship, Old Dominion, needed a double bass player, so he switched to double bass because he was willing to try anything new. Reading about Saunders’ story taught me that even as a musician of color, I need to recognize my privilege. I had access to music lessons. I never really had to keep my work-study jobs in college or have a job throughout high school to pay for my music activities. I never had to work during summers and even attended a few summer music festivals for classical musicians with financial assistance. I never really thought about the lack of open conversations around class and privilege in classical music circles until I worked in service jobs after college to get out of debt and save money so I could do the music activities I wanted to in the future. I don’t even remember many of the kids in my varsity orchestra class ever having to hold down part-time jobs because their parents encouraged them to just study and practice. Class just wasn’t a big discussion in classical music like it sometimes is in other arts and entertainment circles (e.g. popular music, stand-up comedy, acting).

I remember breaking down and crying when I finished paying off my school debt because I didn’t have the money to attend a ten-day summer festival for classical musicians. The total cost was over $2,000 and as much as I tried to convince the program director I couldn’t go, he was gracious enough to let him know if finances were preventing me from going, but after a while I had to just straight up tell him that I was working over the summer and was just starting a new job, and thus wouldn’t be able to go to the festival. I also told him I didn’t feel musically prepared for the program, especially since my audition was rejected and they only wanted me because they probably were running short of a certain demographic of musicians and needed me to fill in. He then told me he understood, and so I sat in on the master classes. But since I wasn’t actually a participant I felt almost like an outsider, even though I was a musician like the rest of those kids. Again, I’m not saying I was at any disadvantage whatsoever considering my class privilege and access to lessons and other things needed to succeed in classical music. However, having to say “no” to this and another subsequent classical music festival opportunity that summer led me to learn more about the wider issue with class inequality in our country and how it is affecting a seemingly unaffected group (aka orchestra musicians).

Like me, Clara studied a mix of different fields in undergrad: sociology, philosophy, political philosophy and economy. She had exposure to the history of class and labor struggles and her experience as a CSO striker enabled her to apply her learning to real-life experience. I am sure many classical musicians want to talk about class and labor struggle, but too often we still see classical music as something for the elites when in reality, everyone can enjoy classical music regardless of their socioeconomic status. Esa-Pekka Salonen said that to change classical music would mean breaking up the season into more digestible segments or bringing in new artists. And I think he’s right. However, the CSO strikers have taken this discussion of classical music reform to another level: we need to start at the grassroots and actually talk about wealthy inequality as classical musicians. We need to stand in solidarity with other low-wage workers instead of pitying them. We need to open ourselves up and listen and learn from the class struggles and strikes that Walmart greeters, Sonic cashiers, and other struggling Americans have gone on to protest unfair management and low wages. We need to, in other words, be better class allies.

We need to open up discussions so that musicians such as Ian Saunders don’t have to feel tokenized or ashamed for talking about working four jobs to pay for their extremely expensive music education. We need to seriously get to the roots of classism and labor rights before we worry about how good the program is or whether the music we pick is good enough. Because that’s how we break the barriers that separate classical musicians and management from the wider struggling American working and middle classes.

More Thoughts on The Favourite

  • Anne screaming bloody murder when she is suffering with gout is me when I have period cramps. Even with our increasingly unaffordable health care system in the United States I at least appreciate that we have doctors and medicines. Oh, and Advil because cramps are no joke. Back then, all they could really do was put mashed-up herbs and raw meat on gout wounds. Sounds very painful.
  • Seeing Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult in About a Boy was delightful and sweet. Rachel plays a single mom who befriends Marcus. In The Favourite they couldn’t have played more different characters. In several scenes Harley (played by Hoult) cusses out Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and threatens her. She just calmly insults him right back. When the insults become too much Harley stands up and actually stares Sarah down. It is seriously one of the most intense moments in the film, and shows the breadth of the actors and what they are willing to play. Rachel and Nicholas seriously are great actors and gave excellent performances, and I am totally sure it was a blast for them to work together on a comedy that, unlike About a Boy, was anything but sweet and touching.
  • The camera lens and lighting were seriously on point in this film. In quite a few scenes, they make the camera lens sort of spherical, very MC Escher, and this sort of gives a closed-in tight feeling for the viewer because it forces us to focus in on just the people being filmed and not so much the surroundings. Also, Yorgos wanted to have minimal lighting, so he uses pretty much natural sunlight from the windows throughout the film. When some of the actors wanted to know when the lights were going to be turned on (as in “lights, camera, action”) he said to them “This is the lighting”. It’s very much like The Lobster, where the lack of lighting gave the film its overall ominous mood. It’s one of the things that I really enjoy about Yorgos’ films because it allows the viewer to focus on the characters’ development throughout the film and not so much the glitteriness of the lighting.
  • I really loved the music for this film. There is a common theme playing during the most suspenseful scenes of the film: a single G, with a string instrument (probably a violin or viola) playing a tremolo bowing, which means that the bow stays in one place on the string and goes really fast, producing a suspenseful sound. And intermittent with the G is a plucked G (in some cases, I heard the G of a piano). I wish I could put a clip on here to show you what I mean, but I think it’s protected by copyright so I can’t do so right now, but hopefully later. Anyway, what makes this film’s music so excellent is that it is very simple. Even with the Handel, Bach, and Vivaldi concertos and sonatas that play throughout the film, we still have this very simple theme that doesn’t require a lot of instrumentation but still keeps us on edge whenever there is a suspenseful scene. Yorgos also uses very austere but beautiful sounding classical pieces in The Lobster to convey the darkness of the film.

Why Retta Is Now One of My All-Time Favorite People

Ok, now let me preface with a shameful disclaimer: I have not seen one episode of Parks and Recreation. Like many people I only know the American comedian Marietta Sirleaf (aka the Actress Known as Retta) from the episode where her and Aziz Ansari, who are coworkers in the show, have a “Treat Yo’ Self” year where they treat themselves to fancy things such as mimosas and “fine leather goods”. Little did I know that Retta is pretty sick and tired of people using that phrase so many times around her. That is, until I read her hilarious memoir So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know, in which she chronicles her childhood in the projects of New Jersey to her struggle with employment in Los Angeles and her success later on. I honestly think anyone of any profession can learn from Retta’s memoir, and I found reading this book especially helpful as a musician because like any entertainment field, it is competitive and you have to have a sense of humor even when struggling to be successful in the industry. I normally don’t read non-fiction but as of late I have found reading funny but touching memoirs by female comedians (the last one I read was Bossypants and I snagged a copy of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please from the library shelves) to be my go-to for continuing to persevere in the quest for my dreams.

Here are just a few things I learned from reading Retta’s book:

-Ask not, you get not. In her next to last chapter “That Year I Went Lin-Sane”, Retta talks about how her friend got her hooked on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton but that it was hard to get tickets since they were all sold out. So Retta asked her publicist, which led her publicist to connect with someone who could get her the tickets. She finally got them and, when there were subsequent showings of Hamilton she kept persisting in asking the person who gave her the tickets before if she could see it again with her friends. Retta not only got to meet the entire cast of Hamilton, but also Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, and even got to see him in the last show he would be in. Just goes to prove that when you really need help, you just need to ask because the worst someone could say is “no”. Also, Lin is a sweetie. Never met him, but from how Retta describes him, he seems like a genuinely sweet person.

-Love yourself so you can genuinely respect others. Retta has faced a lot of size-based discrimination while in the entertainment industry. In her chapter “Membership Has Privileges” she describes the surreal glamour of being at the Emmys and the Golden Globes and getting to dance, drink, socialize with the hottest stars (and exchange awkward moments with a few of them, such as when Retta mistakes Julia Stiles for another actress and Julia gives her a deer-in-the-headlights look and tells her coldly she is mistaking her for the wrong person. That moment had me shooketh, like “Wow, Julia Stiles. Just wow.”) One of the photographers at the Golden Globes refuses to take a photo of Retta because she doesn’t like the way Retta looks, and so a bunch of other photographers start photographing Retta, and when the photographer lady proceeds to catch up with her peers and finally take one of Retta, Retta holds up a finger at her and basically tells her (paraphrasing her words) “No it’s fine, don’t take my photo while every other photographer who doesn’t care what I look like does. Because you don’t deserve to.” It takes courage to love yourself after all the tears and struggle, but as Retta says in her chapter “Stretch Marks Fo Life!” you have to accept who you are and embrace your own beauty rather than feel pressured to conform to other people’s standards of beauty. She says that exercising and eating right are great, but you also need to splurge sometimes.

-Imposter syndrome comes with a nasty price tag. Spend your money and time on bouncing back from rejection, not on imposter syndrome. In the very first chapter “Eff You Effie!” Retta says that her manager called her out of the blue about fourteen years ago to tell her he booked her an audition to play Effie White in the film Dreamgirls. Even though Retta at first thought it was her dream to star in this film, she started doubting herself and her qualifications even though she had been working as an actor for ten years. Retta says that “the fear of rejection is real, my friends. When you’ve had your fair share of soul-crushing, self-esteem-destroying experiences, it’ll do a serious number on your psyche.” She experienced rejection after rejection many times during her acting career, and it can be hard to bounce back after rejection so many times, so she didn’t put herself out there for the longest time until the Dreamgirls opportunity came along. She also injured her ankle one time while dancing and thus thought that her sprained ankle would ruin her acting career, and also worried that the costume department wouldn’t find a dress for Retta’s size. More importantly, though, Retta didn’t feel she deserved to be acting alongside Jamie Foxx, Beyonce and Eddie Murphy because she felt she wasn’t what they wanted in Effie White. According to Retta:

I never said no; I was way more chickensh*t than that. I just kept avoiding it, putting it off. For about three months I never made myself available, and it got to the point where they had a movie to cast and so they did. They went with the seventh-place finalist of season three of American Idol. They cast Jennifer Hudson. She had no credits. But you know what she did have? The balls to show up to the audition.

Retta p. 11

Now, to be fair, and Retta does acknowledge this of course: Jennifer Hudson kicked serious ass in that movie and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Hell, her performance throughout the film gave me chills and all I could think was, “Woah. She is hella talented.” I then saw her in the Spike Lee film Chi-raq, in which she plays an incredibly gut-wrenching role as a mom who daughter got killed in gun violence. Jennifer Hudson is truly an incredible actress, and her approach to the audition was that simple: Just perform. Don’t try and craft a perfect image of Effie White. Just play the role and be confident even when you feel that you aren’t the right person for the role. Or as, Retta says,

I did not win an Oscar but I learned a valuable lesson that stays with me to this day and plays on a loop in my head anytime I have a big audition. It goes a little something like this: B*tch stop wasting time fearing the worst. Living through the worst is never as hard as fearing it. Fight the fear and go do what you gotta do. That’s what you came here for.

Retta, p. 13.

Honestly I think this quote will stick with me for the rest of my classical music career. In classical music the focus is on mastery and perfection, so it’s no surprise that people in conservatories spend their whole lives working at their craft (with some time to have fun and enjoy life, of course). However, we live in an age where anyone anywhere, regardless of whether or not they think they have enough expertise, can record themselves performing with their phones. There are people out there who create video blogs and even if they talk about things such as what so and so said to me or what I had lunch for today, they make millions off of it. I’m not saying that get-rich-quick stories are applicable to everyone (ya girl is one example) The work doesn’t have to be perfect because someone will tell you whether or not they like your work and you just need to keep creating and pitching yourself until you find someone who does like your work and wants to offer you an opportunity better than you ever thought possible. I get that classical music auditions are competitive, but at what point does perfection become an illusion? Because a lot of times we can’t afford to stay at home and work on something until it’s perfect; we’ve got mouths to feed, jobs to work, errands to run. Yes, it’s important to practice, but you still need to get your work out there so that the experts can see it and help you fine-tune your technique. And if you don’t end up making the orchestra audition? Don’t beat yourself up; do other things besides just music because people want a well-rounded person nowadays. If you’re going to be a successful artist you need to learn how to promote your work using other mediums, such as writing and other things.

-Keep in touch with the people you worked with. Retta and her Parks and Rec co-stars communicate via group text even to this day because they were with each other through thick and thin during all of the seasons.

-Have an attitude of gratitude and keep an open mind. Retta got to attend several hockey games, meet famous hockey players and present at the National Hockey League awards. Before, she thought she would have no interest in hockey. But after communicating with the LA Kings hockey team through Twitter, Retta came to the games and thoroughly savored every moment she was at the games, even trying to get past a security guard to go directly towards the glass to see the players in full action. She got to attend several incredible award ceremonies (and meet her dream bae, Michael Fassbender. Although I will say I had a hard time thinking of him as a bae after seeing him playing a beyond hostile slave-owner in Twelve Years a Slave. But that’s just my opinion). After growing up in such difficult circumstances and struggling even when she moved to LA for her acting career, achieving success was truly a life-changing thing for her, so she was able to appreciate gaining so much access to Hollywood and getting so many amazing acting opportunities along the way. She says that as an actor, what is most important is not getting smug and complacent with your success and quitting your work, and that as long as she is alive, she will keep being a working actor because it brings her joy. I remember Suze Orman saying something similar: keep working, even if you have all this money, always keep learning new things and always keep doing work that you love.

This blog post is by no means a comprehensive review of the book because I literally loved it so much I couldn’t stop guffawing in the library while reading it. But it gives a snapshot as to why I think you should drop everything you’re doing and treat yo’self to this epic book. (gosh why did I make a bad joke about that meme? Please forgive me Retta and don’t tweet this. I promise to not stop you in a store one day and have you say it in my camera-phone like that one fool did. I pinky-promise.)

So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know. 262 pp. 2018.