The Latest

My first real memory may very well be the opening scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, in which, after the floating text tells us the world is at war, Darth Vader and his stormtroopers seize Princess Leia’s ship. While rebel soldiers line the hallways, stormtroopers blast open the air-locked door and begin firing lasers. A moment later, Vader comes through with his black mask and heavy breath, cape sweeping the ground behind him, and sometime after that we see lightsabers and landspeeders, X-wing and Tie-fighters, the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star, and I’ll say now “ignite” is too weak a word to apply to what that movie did to my imagination.

Suddenly we were all looking at the stars, wondering what went on above our heads. Or we were arguing if lightsabers were real, if we could learn to use the force to move things with our minds or convince our mothers to take us swimming if she said no the first time. I still wonder, occasionally, when I’ve left a light on after climbing into bed, if I couldn’t just turn it off with the wave of a hand. More… “Watching the Skies”

I learned a lot hanging out in bathroom stalls. Like how many girls came in there to cry. Or that some girls came in there while experimenting with double dongs.

For me, the bathroom was a place to hide: the only actual place in high school where I could disappear. It wasn’t enough to slink into the back row of class, buried in a book, hoping the teacher didn’t realize I was writing stories instead of taking notes. Unfortunately, my test scores gave away that I was studying, if not paying attention. Anytime a lull hung over the classroom, inevitably my name was called upon: “Allison, do you know?” All eyes on me. Did my peers think about the constellations that acne formed on my face? Recognize me as the girl who had no table in the lunch room? My stomach churned. I’d meekly mutter a response, then skip the next period to linger in the bathroom. Getting good grades helped; oddly, I was never reprimanded for ditching class.

I didn’t start off my secondary education this way, watching the minutes tick by on my Minnie Mouse watch while others peed, impressed by those who could be in and out in under a minute, disgusted by the number of girls who didn’t wash their hands. In fact, I was excited for the first day of high school, and not because of bathrooms. Bloomingdale was the only public high school zoned for my hometown of Valrico, Florida. This meant that the friends I grew up with riding bikes through hot, humid summers and held sleepovers on trampolines with were all together. Sure, we were probably the only table of girls in eighth grade who played spelling games at lunch, but we had each other. More… “Stalling until Graduation”

About ten miles outside of Montana, Bulgaria, I noticed the first hitchhiker. She was young and beautiful on the bank of the highway looking wistfully down the road. She wore a light gray tank top, unveiling her shoulders to the sun and a pair of skin-tight jeans fashionably clawed to shreds. She carried nothing but a black clutch. She wasn’t trying to flag down a ride, but she did peer into each passing car, almost as an afterthought.

From within the car, my biological sister, Sarah, and I exchanged confused glances. Here, between small towns in Bulgaria, the two of us were on a journey to explore the birthplace of our adopted brother, Rudy. Rudy had first joined our family in the US over 20 years earlier at the age of three. More… “Rudy’s Roots”

Busy, busy, busy. So much to do, so many traitors to be shot. You’d think a victorious tyrant would have his hands plenty full in the aftermath of Spain’s murderous 1936-39 civil war. It turns out, though, that Generalissimo Francisco Franco had long nursed a secret desire, one he was uniquely in a position to satisfy at the outset of his nearly four decades in power. But where in the world did he find the time to write the screenplay for a feature-length film? Never mind that the end product is as artistically shoddy and morally repugnant as anything that ever defiled celluloid, it still gives a fascinating peek through the thick velvet curtains that lead to the lobby of a dictator’s mind.

Film-buff Franco didn’t often go to the movies. The movies came to him. On engagement-free Saturday evenings a projectionist would be admitted to the head of state’s residence on the outskirts of Madrid where a screening room had been installed. Ministers on urgent business would be roped into attendance. It went on like that until old age began gnawing at his attention span, decades down the road. Hitler, too, was acutely conscious of the cinema’s potential for manipulating the masses, but left the hands-on part to his deputy, Goebbels. And Mussolini certainly praised the carbon-arc projector as “the world’s most effective weapon.” But his movie producer son, Vittorio, revealed that Il Duce could scarcely make it through 15 minutes of virtually any film you could think of without dozing off. More… “General Franco Jumps the Shark”

The opening movement of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others can be described in many ways: bracing, informed, thoroughly engaged with history, disturbing, even profound. I would, however, describe it simply as reassuring. Consider that I’ve just designated the beginning of her text a movement. If I possessed more poetic leanings, I might contend that it functions as a stanza. Its title is measured, artful, a statement that can be read multiple ways — as an opening clause (Regarding the pain of others, comma, here’s what I have to say) or as a commentary on the act of regarding, of viewing, of assessing and appraising human beings in a state of pain and suffering and death. It is in its literary-ness that I find comfort and reassurance, and in its author’s commitment to truly essaying its subject matter (representations of violence) that this volume shines with a lapidary efflorescence. Sontag’s deeper topic, however, is a consciousness of our shared and frangible humanity. More… “Sparing No Pains”

As a young man I had good vocal cords and dreamed of becoming a famous singer. Considering my teenage background in the church choir and in Gilbert and Sullivan high school productions, the drama teacher suggested that singing my way into the opera world seemed a possible choice. However, there was one problem. The music teacher told me that operatic heroes shouldn’t be shorter than the soprano they are wooing.

I stand 5’4” in my stocking feet.

True some opera singers, like renowned tenor Joseph Schmidt, coming in at just under five feet and considered too short for live performances in the opera house, reached fame doing recordings.

But I craved the stage, the audience. If opera was out, I’d find another musical forum. So, I plowed on with my dream. More… “These Boots Weren’t Made for Walking”

While at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md., earlier this month, I attended a panel entitled “Trans Memoir.” During the program, a small group of transgender cartoonists talked about how comics provided them with a mode of self-expression in which they could delineate their best, ideal selves and talk about issues and emotions — often difficult to articulate — that come with being trans.

Two recent books from the small press publisher Secret Acres — Flocks by L. Nichols and Little Stranger by Edie Fake — underscore what those cartoonists were saying. Both books examine the struggles of being transgender and dealing with dysphoria, albeit from very different perspectives and sense of aesthetics. More… “Translating Identity”

In the movies, makeovers are the answer to everything. Before, she is identifiable only by her big, bulky glasses and untamable, frizzy hair. She has no fashion sense, no boy sense, no social sense. No one notices her, no one pays attention. No one cares.

Then, something happens. It doesn’t really matter what or how — someone notices her, she becomes a princess, or a part of a bet — it just matters that now, things are different. Now, she must change. So, with the help of a friend or a makeup team, she goes from ugly and unknown to pretty and popular. Someone forces a flat iron to her hair, foundation to her face, heels on her feet. In an hour and a half, two tops, the grand transformation has occurred.

Suddenly, she’s wanted. The mean girls want to be her friend and the popular boy asks her to the dance. She stands taller, speaks louder, sounds smarter, her clear skin and cleavage making her more confident. More… “The Banal and the Beautiful”

Seven years ago, I interviewed architects Robert Venturi and his wife and partner, Denise Scott Brown, for the Drexel InterView. The show, produced out of this University, showcases individuals in all walks of life who have contributed in important ways to our society. Venturi and Brown, who had done some of their major work in Philadelphia and whose practice was located in the city, had long been people I wanted to interview. Venturi had written the groundbreaking Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1966 and, with Brown (and Steven Izenour), the perhaps even more influential Learning from Las Vegas in 1972. They were giants of modern architecture who had managed to oppose both modernism and postmodernism with a singular vision of their own. More… “Learning from Robert Venturi”

Within the past few years I have succumbed to a period of feminist ennui. It’s not that I no longer think the principles of equality are no longer important, but it seems as if the word and movement, “feminism,” has lost meaning. It has been co-opted, lazily applied, and devalued. I’ve become frustrated by so-called feminists whose actions betray their rhetoric and popular culture texts and figures who think just saying words like “feminist” and “intersectional” is enough. Just the idea that there is such an idea of bare minimum – that feminism is as simple as wearing a t-shirt, watching the female reboot of Ghostbusters, or reposting a quote from Gloria Steinem on her birthday. This is not to say that those things are not important, but that there is a sense that these instances have become more like rituals – they are to be done to reassert a sense of identity, but have lost meaning.

The new essay collection, Can We All Be Feminists? addresses the complications and hardwork of being a feminist who is intersectional, meaning understanding the ways in which feminism can and does intersect with race, disability, immigration, labor, and sexuality (to name a handful). The range of essays, edited by June Eric-Udorie, covers a lot of ground and at times seems like nothing holds them together, until you come back to the anchoring point that feminism and feminists have to diversify their portfolios. To end sexism, examining immigration policies, as Wei Ming Kam does in “The Machinery of Disbelief,” is as necessary as Hollywood’s recent interest in wage equality. And within the rhetoric of equal pay activism, the continued reiteration that “women get paid less” must further be broken down by these other intersecting points: white women are typically paid less than their male counterparts, women of color are often paid less than that, and women with disabilities even less. “Women” cannot be an umbrella term and nor can “feminist.” We have to become more discerning. More… “At the Crossroads”