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This American Life

My first summer out of Smith College had me working for a while on Wall Street (down the street from the WTC) at JP Morgan where I was writing for their site as well as creating “a consistent look” that would make it appear seamless, otherwise known as making our hands invisible on the site, making our work self-effacing. I learned a lot that summer and much more then “the experience” of being a first time employee on the corporate scene, (even though I learned a lot there too) but the basic overall point that summer seemed to be putting theory into the big-time dysfunctional world.

My savior that summer was the artist and unpublished children’s book writer, Gretchen, who not only lobbied to hire me but saved my life with conversations. She was a Smith Ada Comstock graduate who not only listened but argued back with me on my sometimes ridiculous rationale for (dis)liking English classes at Smith or old school feminist rhetoric. I guess I did the same for her on fashion and sexuality, getting into heated discussions near our bosses’ Public Relations/Marketing Office on “misreading the image” of me wearing the “offensively” low-cut shirt to the middle-American polite society corporate office with a dress code, even though (shockingly) done so without forethought for the dudes in the subway or at the office. What made it incredible to argue with her versus shouting it out with anyone else at Smith or elsewhere, was that at the heart of it, both of us were coming from the same place. Both feeling hurt by beauty diatribes early-on when we should have been anorexic, both deeply (making us at times almost privately) feminists, both writing whores, word fuckers, book lovers that secretively self-efface our selves yet appear alright and both at that time thirst for some conversation and some connection. We’d sit in our office or cubical fighting but I’d see myself in her conflict with me, just like I have conflict in being me, and in the end she was as right in her conviction as I was in mine since our differences came out of our commonality and our shared desires to be free.

We’d argue about language, she’d tell me of the torture both men and women put her through to be “beautiful,” how she rejected their ideals and many worlds entirely and I’d tell her of my rejections of the little worlds at Smith and follow it up with my x, y, and z of the “problematic-ness” of this-that-and-the-third (bullshit). Both of us, just by existing, were an offense, a challenge to the other. Me in my tight clothes, she with her English classes and love of high art, but I loved her for it. It was Gretchen who took me out to the shamefully extravagant art collection that Chase and JP Morgan unfortunately own privately. It’s a wicked shame that they have beautiful works just randomly pinned up on the walls around the buildings in midtown that no one notices. Not to mention the enormous private collections that the public does not have access to except on the rare occasion that a museum will get permission to screen some works on a particular theme. But here at one of the private collections I saw the power of Gretchen’s command of language and my fear of it which I had passed off up until now as my loathing of the high arts.

After being swept off to the top floors of one private bank in midtown, where individuals with over the set minimum of ten million dollars get to sit in private offices with their personal bankers to discuss their accounts, I passed through with a small group of employees and their family members to view one wing of their art collection. It was here that I saw the curator speaking out of his ass at a crowd of intimidated employees and family members who skirted around objects as if they were idols of god. They whispered or kept completely silent, never once asking a question as he blabbered on in terminology that made them even further silent and wide eyed. Standing hushed and timid in corners, these same people who were once capable, speaking, intelligent, grown-up, Grown-UP men and women, possessing talent to do their work in their own right, were completely immobile and frankly looking pretty freaked out. Gretchen was the only one having fun with this opportunity. She asked him questions and responded to his art-history 101 terminology that seemed like Latin to the rest of us. She stood next to him versus hiding in the corner, she smiled, she spoke, she got a big kick out of arguing with him or whispering in disagreement behind his back. It wasn’t arrogance that i loved because that’s not what I saw happening, it was better then that. She was fierce since she had no fear of him, or the art on the wall, or his size, his tie, or his Latin. She had no respect but it came from genuinely loving these things, and not for what they represented—the excess to hang nonfunctional surfaces on the wall–but loved them for what they allowed her to do and where they let her go, like her writings. I wanted to be fearless too. So I sucked it up, and all my shit-talking and all my rejections of “high culture.” I decided to learn something. I still think about that collection. It was where I was first introduced to Shirin Neshat.

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One show she adored and listened to on National Public radio was this show that came on during Saturday afternoons called “This American Life”. This American Life? I was skeptical from the jump. I mean pleeeease. What American Life are we talking about? No really, it’s good. She explained that this moderator Ira Glass has this hour long show that is archived online so you can go back and listen to them even if you do miss it on Saturday. And I did miss it, every time in fact, but I started listening to it at work and would get so caught up I’d fuck up doing other things. It’s almost like a documentary or a play in four or five acts, but set to audio. With its clever narratives, musical interludes, interior monologues, and humor, it was consistently compelling. It was so animated I felt as if they were short films created in the listener’s head. Smart, well-put, and clever shows that I remember quite well even though it’s been a few years. Two shows remain memorable in my consciousness, the first called Act V (Episode 218) and the other called Give the People Want They Want (Episode 216)…the first is about a prison threatre production of Hamlet that i haven’t listened to in years but that every now and again creeps up into my head. I listened to it again tonight and found it as compelling as it was the first time I listened to it over two years ago.

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Click on the graphic above and then on “Episodes by Year” and the year being 2002…scroll down to Act V (8/9/02) and the Give the People What They Want (7/12/02) to find amazingly humorous and thoughtful shows (especially check out the act on Pornography).

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