Friday, January 27, 2012

The Business of Staying Alive.2: An Interview with Nora Benson-Glaspey

Not only is Nora Benson-Glaspey a recent graduate of CORE (Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies), she’s also a good friend of mine. Her storytelling skills are legendary, and it’s been a pleasure collaborating with her on “Nora Stories,” a comic featured in Runx Tales #2. Nora and I are now working on a new “Nora Stories,” one that started with a trip to the Winchester Mansion, and is beginning to turn into something bigger: a project where we hope to explore the role of the psychic in modern America.

Nora, who has lived in both pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, currently attends San Francisco City College, where she’s pursuing a certificate in Trauma Prevention and Recovery. I talked to her recently about Hurricane Katrina, the transformative power of disaster, and the problems with getting to know your neighbors.

Matt Runkle: Do you want to start by talking a little about CORE? What it is, who organized it, how you found out about it, why you decided to pursue it?
Nora Benson-Glaspey: CORE was started in 1990, in response to the Loma Prieta earthquake, by the Fire Department’s Office of Emergency Services. Basically their goal is to train as many people as possible to be better equipped to deal with large-scale disasters, whether it be earthquakes, fires, chemical accidents, severe weather or, yup, terrorism, too. After Loma Prieta, first responders were swamped—there just wasn't enough people trained to help everyone who needed the help. Kinda scary to think about. I found out about the program from a friend who took it while I was living in New Orleans. I was bummed cuz I didn’t know of any equivalent where I was at. It just seemed smart.
CORE consists of five classes and one practice disaster, and happens over a six-week period. Topics include personal emergency preparedness, community organizing, disaster first aid and triage, search and rescue, damage assessment, and disaster psychology. The great thing is it's all free: CORE members, firemen and EMT's all volunteer their time to skill share. There are lots of reasons I decided to go—living in New Orleans post-Katrina, I heard enough stories about survival that if I had the chance to learn more about it, I’d better! I also like its focus on community—the idea is to get to know your neighbors before everything goes to hell.
MR: I think a lot about my neighbors, how in a city, you just kind of end up next to these people you have no history with, and what it would be like to weather a disaster with them. I’ve pretty much failed at fostering relationships with my neighbors here in the Bay. Do you feel like CORE gave you any kind of tools to create pre-disaster communities?
NBG: Yes and no. CORE can be used as a legitimate conversation starter. It looks official, it's registered with the city—that really appeals to certain folks. Some people, though, don't want anything to do with the government! CORE also really encourages people to start neighborhood watch groups, participate in Night Out Against Crime. I'm uneasy about all that—I don't want to forge vigilante relationships like that with my neighbors.
MR: You’ve talked a little bit about how CORE was this place where a funny mix of people collided (disastrous pun intended). Do you have any “Nora Stories”-style anecdotes you want to tell from your experience in CORE?
NBG: This one woman I spoke to admitted to me that she worked for FEMA, but she didn't want anyone to know—she whispered it in my ear after I told her I moved here from NOLA. At first I thought she was funny, but the further our conversation went I really kinda hated her. She told a group of us that she thought that people who stayed for hurricanes probably deserved to die. Not like I haven't heard that before.
Come to think of it, there were quite a few people who expressed defensive attitudes about who deserved help—mostly intended at their neighbors already singled out as undesirable. I got the impression it was because they didn't know them—or they were renters. Homeowners don't seem to like renters. Attitudes like this scare me more than anything: they're bred out of fear, are cruel, and can incite violence. I was subjected to similar attitudes in New Orleans, neighbors who thought I was squatting repeatedly called the police and threatened to steal my dog. I was shocked no one ever directly asked me about it. We were renting, so they couldn't get rid of us.
I unintentionally met one of my accusers at the bar; she was a wreck of a yuppie, hell-bent on squatters. She told me, “Don't worry you're on the ‘good list.’ People on the ‘bad list,’ if they don't comply, their bodies will end up in the Bayou. I have a gun.” It was really sad and strange. You see, she snapped. Before the storm, her personality and lifestyle were similar to a Berkeley lady—a middleclass, save-Tibet, Volvo-driving liberal. The stress of living through a catastrophic disaster has the capacity to completely transform us, in ways that we never would have expected—for better or worse.
MR: Can you talk a little more about Katrina? I think you had actually just moved back to California prior to the storm, right? What this was like, experiencing from afar this horrible thing happening to what had become your home?
NBG: Well, I started smoking again. Watching the news was maddening, listening to people talk about what they thought about the news reports was disturbing. Not knowing if my friends were safe was terrifying. I knew from my experience in New Orleans that the media was hyping up the violence. I'm not denying violence by any means, but the way they framed it was so freakin’ sensational. Highly disturbing. It set up dialogues I still hear today that echo the FEMA lady at CORE—“they” just weren't acting right, so “they” don't deserve help. According to a few looping FOX news reports, it almost seemed that New Orleans was full of baby-raping, gun-toting looters, and it was their fault response was slow. What the fuck ever! Years later the media has been called out for racializing looting pictures—white people were “scavenging” and blacks were “looting.” The whole conversation sidestepped the point that our country's infrastructure sucks, and that the government reacted inadequately. The media facilitated this insidious outlook on our nation’s largest disaster, in a way that condoned how our institutions were responding.
MR: Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay for Harper's a few years back, pre-Katrina, I believe, but I think it was actually published around the same time the storm happened [it later became the book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster]. It talked about how, contrary to the myth of the stampede and the panic, communities form in the wake of disasters. It’s become clear, it seems, that the real panic occurs within the media. I’m just curious about this idea of communities that are born out of disasters. I know the final phase of CORE involved a simulated emergency. Did you feel a stronger sense of community forming as you participated in this simulation? If so, is this something that will continue into the future?
NBG: I haven't read Solnit's essay but I have read a handful of studies which indicate that directly following a disaster it is more likely that people will help each other out; however, the longer communities go without basic resources the more likely violence is to increase. In the first few months after Katrina, I witnessed way more people coming together and helping each other out than not. There was this intense momentum to get the city back up and running again; rather than wait for the government, people started getting done what they could on their own. Over time, though, the strain created by lack of resources and aid to the city really took its toll on people.
To answer your question, yes and no. I made some connections with some really great people, none of whom lived in my neighborhood. As far as I can tell, there are not many CORE groups in my neighborhood. The simulated disaster is very chaotic, partly due to learning how to operate within the CORE framework, a hierarchical Incident Command system. People are split into groups to survey damage and find victims, and required to report back to an elected Incident Commander who then, either by foot or radio, reports back to the Emergency Operation Center—usually a local fire station. In our first exercise, information bottlenecked and all I felt was panic. The second exercise went smoother and people were working together. In one respect, it’s easy to see why response can take so long—there is so much paperwork! I hate paperwork, and at one point in my life I would’ve flipped off the whole concept of CORE because of its bureaucratic model, but now I feel more comfortable knowing their protocol so I can make more informed decisions.
MR: I’ve noticed there’s kind of a stigma to being prepared for emergencies, like, “What’s up with ole Doom n’ Gloom over there?” When I talk about putting together a survival kit, some people have been excited about it, while others act like maybe I’m being a little paranoid. Have you encountered this at all?
NBG: Yesss! Mostly, it's “Oh, well that will never happen here” mentality. It's too bad really, cuz there is no harm in having a few more of this and that around the house if something were to come up. I think there is this idea that when and if something happens, there will be people there to respond with supplies. And there will be, but depending on the magnitude of the disaster, it might take time. The government suggests having enough supplies to last for 5-7 days. That's a long time. I get it though, not wanting to think about it.
In one of my classes at City College, we were assigned the task of adding a supply to our disaster kit. Coincidentally, the Fukushima disaster happened that week, so it occurred to me maybe vitamins and iodide tablets wouldn’t be a bad add. Next class we shared what we got with one another, I was scared to mention what I bought and even almost lied. People were very upset, some didn’t even know there had been an earthquake in Japan, others thought I was foolish and some just thought I was ridiculous for thinking something like that could happen here. I never ended up getting my tablets due to a shortage caused by mass buying. My favorite was seeing a couple whisper-fight in Rainbow Grocery about what was better: pharmaceutical or natural iodine.
MR: Did CORE cover nuclear fall-out situations at all?
NBG: Mmmm . . . not so much, but it did come up. Basically their advice was “shelter in place,” which obviously didn't sit well with anyone in the room. There was definitely a quiet “we're gonna run like hell” vibe in the room. The firemen assured us that all nuclear facilities in the state of California were being checked, refitted and super safe. There was a handful of cynical comments and we moved on to the next subject.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Business of Staying Alive.1

My terror of death has gotten worse lately, and it’s surprising—I guess I assumed the end would become easier to accept with age. Not so much with me. So, let me start by saying I’m sorry about how angsty this post is. Something practical will follow, I promise.

Underpasses have become harder to walk through, the threat of an earthquake a dull rumble from both above and below. I’ve always been conscious of reaching the underpass’s halfway point, knowing that the moment I feel the earth move, I should run forward rather than backward to escape the collapse—irrational, I know, especially after a Loma Prieta story I heard: a man told me the sidewalk was rolling along like the surf.

Somebody else told me an obsessive fear of death is the result of a Catholic upbringing. This could be true, although I’m not looking for pity here. I realize such fear is a luxury. I asked my grandma (who wasn’t, by the way, raised Catholic) how often throughout her life she’d thought about death, and she told me never—she’d worked so much, she never had the time. These days, though, 80-something and retired, she mentions death in most conversations. Which is healthy, I think, at her age, but I’m in my 30s.

Sometimes I wonder: would the world be a better place (i.e., people not be assholes) if we all knew what was going to happen to us when we die? Really know, I mean, through rational thought, not blind faith. Would there be less fear in the world, the source of so much human suffering? So many resources and such tremendous scientific effort are put into prolonging this life, but little go toward trying to answer the question of what comes next. The big question no one wants answered. But maybe I’m being overly curious here. Every year it seems like fewer mysteries remain in the world, and I know there’s something to be said for not having all the answers.

But back to that escalating terror, which it seems now is in the very air, it’s become such an effort not to absorb it. Could the places I pass through daily (subway tunnels, wastelands under the interstate) cause me terror merely through their repetition? Is that why they’re getting darker and less stable as I age—are they literally becoming the stamp of death? Haven’t I always expected it to end this way, in collapse, those same subway station tiles imprinting themselves on my forehead, finally, with the finality they’ve always promised? The constant unpredictability of cataclysms—as well as the effort it takes to stave them off—can be numbing.

Numbing or not, I like being alive, and so there’s something to be said for being prepared. Last year I put a lot of work into assembling disaster kits for both my boyfriend and me, and there was something nice about the control it made me feel. Part of this, of course, is illusion: as my grandma pointed out, it’s hard to brood when you’re busy. But it also doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

There is, though, a lot of denial around the need for such preparation. That’s why I’d like “The Business of Staying Alive” to be a semi-regular feature here, one small avenue for casual conversations around emergency preparedness. Now that I’ve got that angst off my chest, it’s time to get out the waterproof matches. Or put them away, rather, and wrap them in plastic, and remember where it was I put them. Tomorrow I’m going to post an interview with Nora Benson-Glaspey, who I’ve collaborated with in the past in the Runx Tales feature, “Nora Stories.” She’ll talk about her experiences going through CORE (Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies) training, as well as her time living in New Orleans both before and after Katrina.

To be continued . . .

Recommended Reading: Junot Diaz, “Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal”; Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communites That Arise In Disaster; Elaine Scarry, Thinking In an Emergency

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Anti-Wedding: An Interview with Ariel Goldberg

I’m really into weddings. I mean that in the most complicated way possible—weddings have caused me a lot of misery, but at the same time, they’ve been a really bountiful source of material. My work as a caterer inspired the wedding reviews I’ve posted here, and I made a comic explaining the underlying gayness in straight weddings for the first issue of Runx Tales. I’m now gearing up to write a novel framed around the ceremony. I’m interested in how the points of view of the different participants—the couple, the parents, the wedding party, the guests, the caterers, etc.—might interweave/clash with the vision of a dictatorial wedding planner.

Ariel Goldberg, a New York-based writer/photographer/performance artist, has spent the past several years doing something similar: brazenly competing with the event’s master narrative. It is a confrontational project in a setting that strives to be devoid of conflict. Weddings, of course, are actually Petri dishes for conflict: nerves are high and multiple relatives are gathered in one place. Yet, still you’re expected to smile. And this is what Ariel refuses to do. They attend the weddings they’re invited to with camera in hand, wearing either high-femme drag or traditional tuxedo butch. Then they ask fellow guests to take their picture. The results are brilliantly uncomfortable. Not only do the photos speak to the strange role-playing that happens at weddings, they also make you re-think throwing around the word, happy.

Ariel has also inhabited their role as the Photographer in many other settings and incarnations. They are currently writing a related epistolary novel. I chatted with Ariel recently while they were lounging in New Jersey, wearing their dad’s sweats and drinking Ketel One on ice.
Matt Runkle: One of the reasons I’m so interested in weddings is because they are such a defining—maybe the defining ritual. I mean, we’re kind of inundated with this from every direction—our families, pop culture, etc.—from childhood on. Was there ever a time when you could picture yourself walking down the aisle?

Ariel Goldberg: Never. I imagined my Bat Mitzvah, very clearly, because it meant the end of Hebrew School. But then I went to Hebrew High, then I got a job at the Hebrew School...
I imagine books and art projects, I think, like people imagine weddings.
MR: Yes, weddings are so aesthetically crafted, they do seem like weird art projects if you step back for a minute. I think when I was a kid, I just assumed I would get married one day. Never thought I would be a priest, though, which is what my parents really wanted.

AG: I actually couldn't imagine my future when I was a kid. Or I cannot remember my imagination of the future. I think my parents wanted me to enter a more lucrative professional class than an artist who teaches. Lawyer? But they deny that accusation.

A priest. Have you ever been one for Halloween?

MR: No! I always thought they were so boring. Did you ever consider becoming a rabbi?

AG: No. Hebrew School was mostly social. My parents' friend has a lesbian daughter who is a rabbi and is married to a rabbi. This satisfies them.

MR: That's nice, it takes the weight off your shoulders. OK, I really want to talk about your wedding photography project, but first, one more warm-up question. What is your least favorite wedding tradition?

AG: When the bride and groom sit alone at that table that is in between the bride's side and groom’s side—it reminds me of bored couples out to eat at restaurants.

MR: Like a harbinger of the boring years to come?

AG: Or just symbolically unnecessary isolation.

MR: That's interesting. A wedding is ostensibly about the joining of two people. Do you think it's actually a more divisive event than it lets on?

AG: To join two people, but also to make them like celebrities to their families and friends. I think it's a risky event. Fun in a way where you have to work for it. All the triggering moments come up with people in your life, it seems. But I also feel like someone who cannot speak for a wedding being divisive as a guest. Or it has only seemed like a party I get invited to, and asked to celebrate. So I cannot call it divisive.

MR: You’ve written about your wedding photography project: “I was very insistent on being alone in the pictures, as if I was imitating the grandeur and spotlight on the bride, but I was the anti-bride.” Can you talk a little bit about the role of the bride and your role as her sort of foil? Have you gained any insight into bridal psychology through posing as this “anti-bride”?

AG: The bride is supposed to look beautiful. And they do in this very prescribed way. I think I am a foil of another version of feminine. Thinking about Judith/Jack Halberstam's Masculine Femininity. It's like that question of if you wear a suit, do you then identify as a man? Am I in drag? Or am I passing as the gender my family doesn't know me as? I just want to disrupt whatever molds are happening.

MR: Do you think these roles manifest themselves more when we’re wearing our wedding “best”? Boys wear suits and girls wear fancy dresses. Do you feel the pressure is greater?

AG: Definitely. And also my family doesn't really see each other much outside of holidays and birthdays. So it's a performance day in general. But I think it's important to think about how I might go to a wedding in a dress and feel like it is drag, or in a suit or tux and want to pass, and I don't think much about what I'm doing in the moment. It's more to pose a bunch of questions about my role as going to a wedding as an artist. Like I cannot just go and not be an artist. I want to perform with the bride and groom. The performance I do is incredibly slight, but it has read as insensitive and selfish.

MR: Can you talk about this a little? What sort of conflicts have the performances caused?

AG: Well, I think the biggest conflict is that they haven't gone away. At the most recent wedding (of my family's, which was the third one where I asked other guests to take my picture, in a directed self-portrait way), I was accused of being a show stealer, or just doing something that upset the whole dynamic of it being the bride and groom’s special day.
My pictures take about one minute or less to shoot. I asked about 30 people at that wedding. I'd say half of them know me. What was interesting was comparing the way I ask people to take my picture alone—as if I am in a foreign country—to how people at weddings will always have cameras, and the photographers are constantly taking pictures, and they also ask people to take their pictures. It is disturbing, I think, for someone to ask another person to take a picture of them alone. And this is strange because people are photographing themselves more and more because of the demand for an online profile to represent you.

I think my pictures are not in the vocabulary of the posed picture. People were confused about me not wanting to smile. I think I make pictures better when I don't smile. I think smiling in pictures is like saying something inauthentic. People are terrified of looking unhappy.

MR: I know this sounds dramatic, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt as abject as I have as a wedding guest—it’s worse, even, than when I’m working as a caterer. With catering, at least, I’m anonymous and I can go hide if I want to. Do you feel like not smiling is reflecting your misery in the moment?

AG: Well, it is hard for me to splice. Because as a photographer, and someone who thinks so intensely and constantly about the way people are photographing and the pictures surrounding me and the history of the medium, I am across the board not interested in smiling in pictures. I think I am not necessarily miserable at weddings. I may be having a great time. I have had fun at weddings. I guess it depends on so many things. But what does make me miserable is the command to smile. The sort of presumption that if you are not smiling then you are miserable.

MR: I've had fun too, but I feel like there's always this underlying resentment, because my experience doesn't translate into the “straight” world. All the rituals (bouquet toss, garter toss) point us down this trajectory toward marriage we’re all expected to—enthusiastically—pursue. And if we don’t, then we’ve ruined the wedding. Everyone is required to be happy, because that is the goal of a wedding, isn’t it? Enforced lifelong happiness?

AG: Yes, that is an interesting point. There is a lot of myth making. Like how can you be at a wedding when you don't totally agree with the institution of marriage? How can you be at a wedding and be happy for people who have rights you don't have? How can you not even harbor resentment to the powerhouse gay rights nonprofits at these weddings for fighting so hard for assimulationist rights?

The happiness weddings are ushering in—"they are so happy together," "we are so happy for you"—is like billions of probiotics. It cannot be a whole emotion. But it is totally expected to be. There is a lot expected of wedding guests, I think. They have to be obedient extras.

MR: Totally! And there’s even more expected of the bridal party. There’s this real objectification that takes place. You’re being shuttled around like a prop, and you’re kind of there as an item in the bride’s collection. Can you contrast your experience being photographed as a member of the wedding party with being photographed by other guests as The Wedding Photographer?

AG: The experience of being a bridesmaid—or "bridesgay," as the other two gay male friends in the bridal party called it—felt like somewhere I didn't belong. I don't know what to do in formal group portraits besides write down notes of what the photographer directed us to do so I could work it in to some of my writings on photography. It was something I felt like I would mess up. Or that it was an unrealistic commitment. It was out of love for my friend, to be part of it, and to represent this part of her life that was high school, but then I felt like this loose screw. There was a lot of waiting around. I felt like as soon as the wedding started, and the group pictures were over (there were many stages of photos, I mean, so, so many photos—candids while getting ready, the ceremony, at a location near the reception, group portraits at the reception, and then they did family portraits, then candids of the party) … Simply put, I felt exhausted by the photos in the wedding, taken by the photographer.

I felt like my role at this recent wedding was to be an observer. The only person I wanted to photograph me, in a directed self-portrait way, was my partner, Amanda. And she did a very nice job. But I wanted it done quickly. I knew what type of directed portrait I wanted, and we just did it. This was a big break from the other three times when I would go up to many more people. I think I've become slower and more refined. It can be more a performance for myself. I mean, a photo—even one—can be an infinite gesture.

MR: I want to talk for a second about the groom. He kind of occupies this weird realm of masculinity, like in between virility and emasculation. He’s in the spotlight, yet remains overshadowed (or out-lit?) by the bride. Did you find yourself identifying with him at all as The Wedding Photographer? Or were you just as much the anti-groom as the anti-bride?

AG: I think I am the “art-wedding”—can I take back the “anti-bride”? I guess “bride” is some metonym for the whole wedding, because women are thought to get more into wedding fantasies than men? Like there is Bride magazine but is there a groom magazine?

I guess I am the anti-wedding, or maybe just the problem or the consciousness at the wedding. Because I don’t think marriage should be what we’re working towards. I think it is nice for some people, it is right, it is perfect, but for me right now, I see love and relationships outside of marriage. I would prefer it to be de-gendered. So I don’t associate with the masculine or feminine side.

MR: That makes sense. I like the idea of you calling yourself the anti-wedding. OK, last question: Where are you now? You’ve mentioned you feel like you’re through with being The Wedding Photographer. In what ways do you expect to cope with future weddings you’re invited to?

AG: The last family wedding I was invited to, I did not attend. I actually couldn't be faced with the question of: do I continue my pictures as I was doing them, or do I stop them, or do I change the project? My family actively requested me to stop the project. I think it was misinterpreted for attention grabbing, as opposed to a minor and necessary part of the wedding landscape. What I needed was time. I think when you do a project that is serial, it is hard to know when to stop it. I think the way of asking many people to take my picture is over. That project has ended. It will be different now.

A lot of queer people I know, they just don't go to weddings. Perhaps I need to sit out a few more. I'd like to go to weddings when I am actively part of the people's lives getting married. But having some picture of me at weddings seems important. It would be interesting if everyone did that in some way. I see my project mostly as a performance script; I'd want many more people to do it. We come so close to those self-portraits in the total abundance of photography, but everything is posed. I want less posing, more confrontation with cameras.

I have been to two friends' weddings this year and felt no interest in taking any pictures of myself, in "doing my project." I did ask friends what they thought about me doing these pictures of myself at their wedding and they gave permission, but then I didn't do it. In that way it is shifting. It cannot be this totalitarian prompt. I have to feel it out. Maybe the ingredient is estrangement. I didn't feel an outsider among these friends' weddings, and one of them was a lesbian wedding, where I knew so many people. There is less to resist or critique when you can feel a critique of marriage amongst us.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Paper or Plastic?

Here I go, in my pepaw-on-the-porch voice:

I remember when food stamps were actually stamps. And by stamps, I mean perforated pieces of paper you tear out of a book, not stickers you peel off a coated backing. As a teenager, I was a grocery store checker, and people would pay with these stamps, which were a little bit dollar bill-like, only in non-green colors: ones were rust, fives were purple. If the total came out to a non-even number, I’d give back regular old change. People who were smart and diligent and wanted to buy something that wasn’t food—generally drugs or alcohol—would return time after time, paying for twenty-five-cent packs of gum until they’d collected enough change to buy what it was they really wanted.

It was a pretty good scam. Back when scams were still somewhat possible, before everything became plastic. Like, literally, everything. It’s how we prove ourselves now.

And yes, plastic existed when I was a teenager. Plastic bags were very popular. And those bags are still out there somewhere, I promise you, and always will be, no matter how much we wish they never were.

But food stamps, they were just stamps. They were paper, they had leeway, they were ephemeral. Who knows where they might have ended up?

All my life, I’ve heard whispers of a national ID card. Just when I think it’s been long enough—that the rumors were paranoiac, that it’s a scheme that’s impossible to implement, that there are other, even more sinister ambitions to preoccupy the powers that be (indefinite detention, internet censorship)—just when it seems like something not worth worrying about, it rears its head again. The Real ID Act of 2005 required state IDs to be in accord with standards set forth by the Department of Homeland Security (The ACLU—who really seems to have their hands full these days—explains why this is a bad idea). The act has met with widespread resistance from the states, and its future is currently in question. In a recent debate, however, Mitt Romney endorsed a national ID program as a solution to the “threat” of illegal immigration.

If you’re going to exist in America, Romney insists, you’d better fucking exist.

Anyways, those plastic bags? They’re still around. I probably have a pound of them under my sink.

Just over four years ago, the city of San Francisco made plastic bags illegal. Large grocery stores are prohibited from using them. The city council’s reasoning was that not only were the bags clogging SF’s storm drains and taking up landfill space, they had also gathered together to create an enormous oceanic clot of plastic—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Some reports estimate the size of this trash vortex as being up to twice the size of the continental US.

This shit is not going away. This shit is only getting bigger. It’s our shadow, this shit, only it’s real. How long before it taps us on our coastal shoulder?

When you walk out of a store and the security guard sees that white flash of plastic, you can feel secure. You’ll be okay; no one’s going to keep you from leaving with your groceries. You’re proving yourself with plastic.

Receipts? Receipts disintegrate, receipts just blow away. Think of how well—and how permanently—we can prove ourselves once everything we’ve bought is contained on a plastic card. Think of how crime rates will plummet then, how every last scam will be scanned into oblivion. It is only then that we will truly exist, once we can track each and every item we’ve ever removed from the shelf. It is only then we will live forever.

I live in Oakland, a city that attempted to ban plastic bags in 2007, and was forced to reverse its ordinance when plastic bag manufacturers threatened a lawsuit.

I step outside to get some air. I sink into my pepaw chair, which is a rocker. A plastic bag floats by, and it’s beautiful, something we’ve learned from American Beauty. A plastic bag floats by, and though we cannot catch it, we don’t panic.

We’re safe here on our porch, as long as we don’t need to eat. As long as we never leave again, here on our porch we have nothing to prove. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

TVanR.6: Dolly Parton as Miss Mona Stangley

The September 1982 issue of Texas Monthly reviews The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas shortly after its release: “Nearly every lingerie ensemble whipped up by costume designer Theadora Van Runkle is a frilly, plunging horror.”

Doug Tomlinson writes in the September-October 1991 issue of American Film, of Thea’s
‘romantic’ style: sensual satins, furs, lace, and velvet. With The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she was allowed to indulge that latter penchant to great effect, director Colin Higgins agreeing with her that costumes are an effective shorthand to character. In that film Dolly Parton was never more appropriately, nor more lavishly attired: one costume, dubbed ‘Miss Mona Aflame with Passion,’ cost $7,000.
I’m assuming the above drawing is of that $7,000 piece, as fiery and passionate as it is. Theadora, who went on to dress Parton again in 1984’s Rhinestone, was really allowed to let the camp loose in Whorehouse, giving Miss Mona and her chorus of hookers the full “romantic” style treatment. Maybe it took critics nine years worth of perspective to fully appreciate the designer who twice packaged that Tennessean gem, swathing her in dazzling blue-streaked crimson with taffeta sleeves that morph into a boa. 

Theadora Van Runkle passed away this last November. Lucky for us, her wide array of clever wardrobe creations have all been captured on film. Her energetic sketches are a little harder to track down, but there are a few posted here. She is much missed. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

TVanR.5: Bernadette Peters as Marie Kimble

In a letter to me, Theadora Van Runkle described Bernadette Peters as “adorable,” and it’s hard to think of a better adjective. This drawing doesn’t do that adorableness justice, although it does suggest failed attempts at sophistication—something that rings true to the character of Marie.

Theadora really brought the world of The Jerk its charm, opting for a subtle absurdity that syncs well with the movie’s childlike tone. Who can forget that raggedy bathrobe? She dressed Peters again for 1981’s Heartbeeps, an Andy Kaufman film about robot domestics on the lam. 

Tomorrow: Dolly Parton as Miss Mona Stangley!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

TVanR.4: Raquel Welch as Myra Breckinridge

I really wanted to draw Mae West as Leticia Van Allen for this post. Raquel Welch is a bit of a dead pulse in 1970’s Myra Breckinridge,  a movie notorious for making critics’ Worst lists. Its costumery is really what takes center stage, each scene a new and different sartorial showcase, and it looks like Theadora Van Runkle had a really good time dressing the movie’s cast.

Except that Thea didn't dress West. For her return to the silver screen, the aged icon demanded she be outfitted by an equally legendary artist: Edith Head. So, while West’s dresses may look fabulous, they are not technically Van Runkles.

Several years earlier, when Theadora was shopping for fabric for Bonnie and Clyde, she'd run into Head and asked for advice. “Oh, darling,” Head said, “do everything in chiffon—you’ll have no problems.” Bonnie and Clyde ended up being noted for its chiffon-lessness, and when the two designers collaborated on Myra Breckinridge, their differing visions resulted in just one of many on-set aesthetic clashes: West’s signature look for the movie was black and white, and when Welch came to set dressed in a black dress with a white ruffled collar, West demanded the collar be spraypainted blue.

I liked drawing this look because of its tension between the profane and sacred, the cleavage taking center stage amid an almost saintly hood. That iconic American-flag one-piece does this too, I guess, but I wanted to draw something here that was a little more Thea and a little less Raquel.

Check back tomorrow for Bernadette Peters as Marie Kimble!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

TVanR.3: Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker

Theadora Van Runkle taught herself how to design during her inaugural costuming job: 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Rather than go with 1930s high femme for the period piece, she took a tomboy approach that was unconventional for the time, and ended up sparking a fashion trend. Following Bonnie and Clyde’s release, beret sales soared, maintaining their popularity well into the ‘70s. 

Her vision at first was met with resistance. “Faye thought I didn’t care how she looked,” Theadora said in a 1989 interview. “Faye thought I was trying to make her look ugly.” Nonetheless, Theadora went on to costume Faye Dunaway for The Thomas Crown Affair, and even dressed her off-screen for her 1969 Oscars appearance.

I wanted to avoid that iconic beret for this drawing, and so picked this moment, which although it’s just as posed as every other still from Bonnie and Clyde, still comes across as more intimate. Warren Beatty is somewhere in the background taking a bath, and Bonnie sports an embroidered slip tucked into her midi-skirt as she flirts with the idea of a hat with a brim.

Tomorrow: Raquel Welch as Myra Breckenridge!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

TVanR.2: Shelley Long as Phyllis Nefler

It was really hard to choose a Phyllis Nefler outfit to illustrate, there are so many in Troop Beverly Hills that look fun to draw. The original drawing I sent to Theadora Van Runkle was of one of Phyllis's Bo Peep-ish outfits, and it ended up looking even more awkward than this. I decided to go with one of the more restrained ensembles—a suit with a giant bird attached to the shoulder. I figured showing the conservative end of the spectrum would better emphasize the otherworldly sort of Beverly Hills that Theadora created here. My biggest regret about this one, though, is its lack of a hat. TBH director Jeff Kanew on Theadora: “The producers wanted to hire one of the designers from Dynasty, and would have pushed for a much more ‘tailored,’ tasteful style. And it would have been BORING! My big contribution was to fight for Thea and support her vision.”

For more on Theadora Van Runkle, read this. Check back tomorrow for Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker!

Monday, January 2, 2012

It's a Van Runkle. Isn't it fabulous?

Thus speaks Phyllis Nefler (Shelley Long), the spoiled fashion plate/housewife who tries to get earthy in 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills. Phyllis cycles through costume after elaborate costume, each one more fantastic than the next, and even when she dons her Wilderness Girl uniform, she does so with perfectly tailored—albeit, absurdist—flare. All of this is thanks to the brilliant Theadora Van Runkle, who died this past November.

When I was a kid, my dad said we had some sort of relative who was a Hollywood costume designer. It seemed like a strange thing for him to make up, so I always assumed it was true, although I never found out any details about the relative. Years later, as an adult, I happened to catch the costume designer’s name in the credits of Troop Beverly Hills: Theadora Van Runkle. I knew my family had dropped the Van from our name during World War I, and so I wondered if Theadora was that mysterious relative. A little further research (i.e., her IMDb page) found that her other work had been just as energetic and imaginative as TBH. She also outfitted the casts of Myra Breckinridge, The Jerk, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, as well as The Godfather: Part II; I Love You, Alice B. Toklas; Peggy Sue Got Married; Rhinestone and New York, New York. She was nominated for an Oscar for her breakout work in Bonnie and Clyde, and was respected for the influence its iconic costumes had on the mainstream late-1960s fashion world. Finding all this out about her made me really hope that she was the one.

So I found her address and decided to write her. I told her I was a big fan of her work. I drew a picture of one of Shelley Long’s costumes in TBH (which, having since seen Theadora’s beautiful sketches, I now feel pretty ashamed of). I asked her if we were related.

The letter I got back, in beautiful, hand-brushed calligraphy, answered no. Her husband had died very young, Theadora said, and she kept his name to use professionally. “I think it sounds art deco,” she wrote, “don’t you?” She also claimed the name had brought her luck. She started out working as a sketch artist for Oscar-winning designer Dorothy Jeakins after meeting her at a party. The veteran costume designer went on to recommend Theadora for what Jeakins described as “a little western over at Warner brothers”—a movie that turned out to be the acclaimed Bonnie and Clyde. Theadora, who had never designed before, winged it, and went on to receive that Oscar nod. The letter went on: “My first screen credit inspired others with unique names to use theirs without changing to something less ethnic or more conventionally glamorous.” She ended the letter by saying Warren Beatty had encouraged her to change her name to Thea Vee, but she refused.

Theadora wrote that letter in 2009, when she was 81. I feel privileged—despite the fact we’re not blood-related—to have gotten to know, however slightly, an artist with such warmth and singular vision. In memory of Theadora’s passing, I’m going to post a drawing a day this next week: five Van Runkle-costumed leading ladies from some of my favorites of her movies. They’re not attempts to compete with Theadora’s original sketches, which are genius, seriously—you should look at a couple here and here. The drawings I post this week are through my own awkward film-viewing lens, and are gestures of love and admiration.

Look for Shelley Long as Phyllis Nefler tomorrow!