Friday, July 29, 2011

How do you work? PII: The Desk

"You can tell a lot about people when you look at their books, or their relationships, or their desks." -Anjali

Inspired by Anjali, who inspires a lot of my posts actually:

 Anjali has her lab desk. That is her desk. I live my life in front of several desks and go through a falling in and out of intense and passionate love with them. Right now, I am in transit and I have grown indifferent. No hatred. Just indifferent.

In 1st grade, I was in love with our new desks that Mom put in the living room. In love. My small knees fit comfortably under it. There was a well placed groove for pencils and pens. An inside to hide things. I was so sad when I outgrew the legit desk and had to move to a fold-able table and then even worse when I outgrew that to the kitchen table: the equivalent of homeschooled exile and reject in sixth grade.

In the residence halls, I made do with the desks found in the rooms. I spent hours there because I wasn't a fan of study halls or lounges to get my work done. The view was important. I always put the desk in front of the window so I could see something: in Simmons, this meant Mt Nittany once the leaves were gone and students wandering in various states of anxiety or rowdiness to get food in Redifer dinning commons. My desks are well placed for distraction.

Patty's Place was a house of great desks. Maggie had one that filled up the space under her bunk. She assembled it herself, deep cheery colored wood and carefully organized. Sarah chose the window with a desk that harkened back to my 1st grade one, but its lid was covered with pictures and other memories. When Rachel moved in, she brought probably my childhood ideal desk that had lots of spaces for books and letters to be tucked away. She kept it very neat.

And my Patty's Place desk. It was ideal. My preferred shape. The best placement possible. Free: a gift from the overflowing basement of the guys next door [Scott perhaps?]. I chose the window facing the garage and driveway, where it picked up the sunlight from the early morning and into the winter evening (the sun sets in very different places according to the seasons, I discovered).  I set it up with very little because it was small, with lots of space for my legs. My computer front and center. Stacks of papers (mostly my thesis in progress). A candle to remember how I couldn't have one in the residence halls. A pot made by the lovely Maureen Senft that held a myriad of pens for my colored ink whims. A short lean to the book shelf.

A desk to be distracted.

Now that they've moved out, I can confess that I was interested in the movements of my neighbors, Brad Scott (until he moved out), Billy Squire, Matt Martin, and Scott Umble. We slowly became friends over the year. I watched with inexplicable curiosity at Billy's wanderings from house to garbage cans to his car, leaving in his car, coming back in his car, and slowly wandering all over again. Or remarking on the odd hours Matt seemed to leave and come back, or how long Sarah's car was in the driveway, and whether the cars were in some state of "in the middle" repairs. Or how Brad was getting along with his knee (?) after surgery in how easily he navigated from house to car on his crutches. Alright. I admit it. I was also the occassional unseen guest in their middle of the night conversations.

I was a nosy Mrs. Lynd.

Very few seemed to notice my observatory perch. One night someone did. Before I knew ballroom people well at all (my adv 1 semester), Sarah drove some to our house late at night and walked from our place to a party. Matt Shimizu saw me at work at the desk an open window and yelled to hurry and get my dance shoes on-- we were going dancing! I couldn't see who it was so I ran downstairs to find Mike, Emily, Matt, and Sarah in the living room. Matt rolled up the rug, pushed the coffee table aside, and started a chacha without music, forcing me through cuban breaks. It took me a while to convince them that I really did need to work and couldn't go with them.

I can't remember what I was working on at all.

I will miss the desk spot by the window when I move Monday. I'll have to find a new place for it where I can be equally distracted from writing, from work, a new place to pile thoughts incomplete.

Invest not just in the desk but in the view.

Well... it depends on what you're after. It depends on who you are. Like your books, relationships, and desks, where you put it (or accept it) says something about who you are.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Campus Ministry Blog

 Dear Reader,

In the next year, I am working as a campus ministry intern with CCO/Calvary Church in State College, PA. In order to more effectively share about that work, I have started a blog aimed at chronicling that journey.


Check out the "About me and this blog" tab for an explanation of what I'll be doing over there.

Don't worry. This blog is much beloved by me (if only for the name of it sometimes) and will be maintained as well, continuing my rambling thoughts, wishes, rants, resources, etc. Starting another blog space is to help sort the content out a bit if that is something you as my reader would like.

Dana Ray

How do you work?

I told a friend last night that summer is a time when I find it hard to write. Robin Becker, a PSU professor and poet, said at a reading that her body and mind is trained now to write freely and deeply when the summer comes and proffessorial duties are at their least. I have been trained on the opposite clock: to write for the assignment in the year. My mind is increasingly disorganized and lazy in these summer months, these brightest days of the year.

I love summer. I think that 81 degrees, low humidity, and bright sun is my favorite type of day. I love what wind feels like in that heat. I love how bright the sun is. I love sleeping out in it. I love the sunsets. I love sweet corn. I love being warm. I love summer.

Summer is like taking a shower for me. Some people think best in the shower. Their best meditative work happens there. Not for me. I'm so enjoying myself that I can't think at all. I find it hard to think in summer heat, whether overly oppressive or just right. I can think all too well on cold and gloomy days.

What I do best in the summer is read. Lots and lots. I read from many genres, for intellectual growth and simple pleasure. Biography to essay to crime novels. It's a time of feeding. Of growing. A time waiting for fall when that time kicks into gear for some academic work.

But perhaps I will someday be retrained. I won't be returning to academic work this fall. No courses. No assignments. Will I write? Will I make things?

I think that is a choice (horribly) left entirely up to me.

What seasons do you do your best work in? What are other conditions that you need in place to make things? Am I just making up excuses for not having written anything this summer and barely posted?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Kidney Stone Chronicles

While biking to work today, this film conversation came to mind:

Lazar Wolf: How is your brother-in-law? In America?
Tevye: Oh, he's doing very well.
Lazar Wolf: Oh, he wrote you?
Tevye: No, not lately.
Lazar Wolf: Then how do you know?
Tevye: If he was doing badly, he would write.

 This is my justification for not chronicling the rest of State College Arts Fest. I was fine. And then my kidney discovered a kidney stone right as James Meek began the service reading of Psalm 103, " He heals all your diseases./ He redeems your life from the pit/ and crowns you with love and compassion." I then embarked on 5 hrs of the most intense pain I have ever known. It was, thankfully, short lived, though it felt anything but short.

So because I'm not not "fine", it's time to provide you with a blog post.

 Best thing about all of this: it happened at church. If I was alone when the pain came on, I don't know what I would have done.

I learned and am continuing to learn, a lot from this process. One was that both pain and morphine and oxycodone make me a little loopy. Or slow. Or weird. Something like that. During the pain loopiness, I muttered to Kate Sauder as she drove towards the ER that I had been constructing a list of reasons why I love the local church and she had just single handedly moved to the top of the list. I then retracted my statement and said that perhaps she could take second place after communion. I was clearly out of it, but Kate knew that. I had, after all, just tried to climb into someone else's car in the parking lot.

But, all in all, the news is good: pain does not necessarily mean life threatening. I'm up and about. Working with good ol' Hemingway again. Heading to Hershey for a week on Thursday. Waiting for the kidney stone to pass. I'm thinking about naming it. Any suggestions?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Arts Fest: Day 1

The event began for me last evening:

Homemade milkshake; tango lessons (how to get into promenade 13 different ways); making weekend dance plans; cool evening; Wings Over with Hannah (oh the wonders of delivery!); salsa night with a lot of people which is always best (shout out to Tyler for getting the rust out of his salsa and staying for the Shakira world cup song); walking home by myself; jumping in the water buckets on Allen st. at 1:20am; a full moon.

The weather is glorious, cool and bright. I couldn't ask for better wandering weather which is exactly what I shall do on my lunch break through stands and stands of crafted beauty. I love this event already.

End of Thursday report:

Lovely day. Delightful lunch break wandering the booths with Sara Rhodes and Robbie Fraleigh. Seeing a few more things on a walk home. Long chat with Christy Tennant on gmail about next year (she's amazing). Headache induced nap that went longer than I intended. Wandering the perfect weather and glorious sunset with housemate Ashley and sister Hannah. Wine expedition at J House with cookie dough. Pizza with Mooney and Foxy. Sitting on a curb outside of a movie theater before the start of Harry Potter just so we could feel part of the anticipation (none of us had tickets). Lots of silliness. The comfort of the perfect weather.

Friday, July 08, 2011

In Gratitude: Jessi Brown

Last weekend, I visited Ocean City, NJ. Some of you may remember my summer there for a leadership training program with CCO. My first stop when I arrived was the front porch of the Sheldon's home, the Pastor's family from 1st Pres where I attended. Mrs. Sheldon and I were catching up through various subjects and found our way, as women are wont to do, at relationships. She lamented that she had five daughters that she wanted married but that there were so few good men. The words were similar to those that Mrs. Bennet cries through "Pride and Prejudice", but here it was spoken by a rational, God-fearing woman who has sought her family's well being through many years. I murmured that I was lucky in this respect. She asked what I meant. I felt compelled in that moment, to observe to her and to myself that I have been blessed to count many Godly men as my close friends. Penn State actually possesses many men of character--or boys of character who are quickly becoming men. I can't praise my guy friends enough for their care, thoughtfulness, playfulness, and truth speaking. I think of "Theo Thursdays" started by Steve Sylvia sophomore year and hikes with Mooney and so many other instances of friendship from them. They've made me a better woman for being around them.

This conversation with Mrs. Sheldon made me ask: what was it that created such a community of strong men? I thought of Navigators, of discipleship, of pastoring, of good company, of good parents. While all significant parts of the equation, there was not one that applied to every man that I had in mind. C.S. Lewis, however, pointed me in what I think is the right direction.

Before church on Sunday mornings, a small group gathers in the Oakwood kitchen to read and discuss Lewis's work "The Great Divorce". Just two Sundays ago during our discussion of chapters 12 and 13, we discussed a passage that described one of the "solid people": a beautiful woman, almost like a goddess. When the speaker asks his guide who she is, the guide says:

"It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green...Aye. She is one of the great ones."

Following her is a large entourage of animals and people. They are her "sons and daughters" and lovers:

"Every young man or boy that met her became her son--even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter... Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives." (The Great Divorce, p354)

Walt asked if we knew anyone like this. I said that I did and found in my answer one common presence in my brothers who served me. Her name was Jessi Brown. She was a student at Penn State. We were not close but merely shared the same circle of friends, or rather, I shared hers. She was the hub around which friendship turned for several years, even for those who did not know her well. My direct interactions with her are few and mostly insignificant: her arriving after Mooney to the surprise party she had planned for him, finding her riding her bike around Stuckmann building when she was suppose to be in studio, her "fighting" Steve Sylvia and someone else in Redifer commons, seeing her through the open door at a Navs dance practicing ballroom steps with a few others.

What I do know and will always know and carry in my heart, is that she loved and was loved by a group of boys who became men. I don't mean romantically, necessarily, though that happened too. I mean that she was such a unique person, lively, kind, that admiring and respecting her changed my guy friends. They became better friends, better brothers, better boyfriends, better sons. I claim this for those of us definitely not men as well (better sisters, better friends, etc), but I think she had a special influence over them that was very different than that she held over us. She challenged them by her mere existence to be better men.

Two years ago, she and her boyfriend Eric Kauffman died in a car accident while driving to a wedding. I began to grieve as if she and Eric were closer to me personally than than they were. But she was heart to my community and it felt as if part of my own body had gone missing. I was separated from that community by living in Ocean City that summer and even though I lived in a house with friends, I felt alone.

Jessi's absence has taken a toll in ways I don't think any of us have understood or can understand. What I do know is that I have been loved and cared for well in the last two years by a community of men that I deeply respect. And I believe I owe this gift to the example and love that one woman gave to a motley crew of undergrad boys.

Jessi, I thank you.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Transient Art

14For he knows our frame;[a]
   he remembers that we are dust. 15As for man, his days are like grass;
   he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more.

Psalm 103:14-16

I love to start with word definitions. It seems to ground what I'm thinking and articulate words. Transient: –adjective
1.not lasting, enduring, or permanent; transitory.
2.lasting only a short time; existing briefly; temporary
3. staying only a short time: 

Synonyms: fleeting, flitting, flying, fugitive, evanescent

Over a week ago, I had the privilege to attend "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", performed at the Boal Barn by a local, summer theatre group. There were community members in the cast and production crew as well as several PSU students. Maggie Cox, dear college friend and house mate from last fall, was the vocal director for the cast and offered to take me and Emily Kerner to the opening night. It was a glimpse into her "other world": music. While Emily and I know her primarily through our college involvement in Navigators (campus ministry) and through sharing a common faith, we have known that Maggie existed in other realms than in the ones we typically saw her. She majored in music education with an emphasis on voice. Seeing her in this role was new for us and a special gift.

 The evening was really lovely. I enjoyed the musical, laughing often especially when reminded (sometimes painfully) of myself in junior high and my fanatic devotion to Bible quizzing (the parallels were eerie). Maggie's response was fun to witness. She could only be described as proud and took a special delight in what each cast member was able to perform with their voice. Maggie has a gift that permeates her life in being able to bring out the best in people and her ability to bring out the best in someone's voice is part of that larger gift. 

After the show, she drove me home and we talked a little bit about what it was like for her to see her work be done. She said it was strange to realize that her part in the musical was over the moment an audience was present. No more coaching or instruction. Only what could be given in the performance and experienced by the audience. Months of work and training suddenly completed and done with only one week of performances.

This prompted our talk to turn towards thoughts on art and the way we invest in making things and how all of that comes to an end at some point. Maggie said she doesn't really make art, but I argued that her art was someone else's voice and the brief, passing moment of performance. We agreed that there is something visceral and vulnerable about live performance of any kind, and perhaps that is part of it being completely transient. It lasts but a moment. It hardly seems practical. Yet the human race returns again and again, from centers of culture like NYC to the Boal Barn in State College, to instances of disappearing moments, beauty turned into memory and works hard to make them happen, to make them good. What does it matter? Like I insisted to my mom many times, why make the bed if I'm going to get in it in a few hours? Why all this repetition? And worse than repetition, why all this investment into moments that will never come again, are never repeatable?

Our relationship the transient has changed. It surprises me when I consider that 100 years ago, music was only a performance event. It could only be experienced if someone was playing it, even if it was playing a song that had been played a thousand times before. Music was always different. With the advent of Edison's voice recording technology, music can be preserved from specific moments of performance, evolving to a small pocket devise that can give me access to The Wailin' Jennys and Jon Foreman at any moment. Theater has also been preserved in film. However, I think that is a good example of the inadequacies in "preserving". It is a shadow of the real thing, something that disappointed me again and again when watching videos of plays from my highschool years.

Makoto Fujimura notes in his essay on "Art of Dance" (from his collection titled "Refractions"), that perhaps this fleeting art is still worth dedicating our lives to. He explores in depth reasons why the support of the arts should take special care to support dance and those who spend their lives to be able to complete one split moment of skill and perfect expression. There may not even be an audience. Even if there is, they will soon forget the moment or fail to recognize its worth. They will not be unchanged, however. All of a life well lived is working towards one moment, but one that is somehow capable of making things whole and complete. And to encourage art that passes is to remind us our own position as "flowers in the field". This is not to induce despair but to acknowledge hope. We live a life that will not remember us. No ground we walk on will take pleasure in declaring that we walked on it. No dance we do will be remembered by the air we pass through.

And it is worth doing because in its passing beauty, there is glory:

But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him...
19The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
   and his kingdom rules over all.
 Psalm 103:17-19

Steadfast. Everlasting that runs into the next everlasting. A kingdom that not only remembers but is the beauty captured, hinted at,  in one note hit well with a human voice.

Bless the LORD, O my soul!

Much love to dear Maggie Cox, who inspires me with her art and her teaching. You make things beautiful.

Friday, July 01, 2011

What Makes A Good Film Adaptation? "Jane Eyre"

 I am confused and impressed that my highest viewed blog post was a short paragraph I wrote that asked the question: "What makes a good film adaptation?" There were several interesting responses (See post here But I did not adequately express what I felt was involved in such a thing, though I am highly opinionated on the subject (Are you surprised? Don't be). Many of the post views have come from people who typed just that very question in Google. It seemed somehow sad that so many people went to the post and were disappointed by a lack of clear thought. I seek to rectify that in this post(s) by beginning with my thoughts on the recent film adaptation of "Jane Eyre", a Victorian novel by Charlotte Bronte.

 The Evening Of
To say that I enjoyed this film would be an understatement. The question however is why I found it so enjoyable. The conditions were excellent: Ali Sacks (my ballroom hero) organized a group of girls to go see the film we had wanted to see for a very long time; it was at State Theatre (local State College theatre with an old school feel, red plush seats, an eclectic taste in performances and film showings, and alcohol); we sat in the balcony; the apricot beer being consumed beside me smelled amazing; I may or may not have been watching it for free; and the company was such that there was excellent commenting happening before, during, and after the showing. Such a context cannot help but add to the pleasure of a period film.

The Love of the Book
Now to the film itself. One cannot consider an adaptation, I believe, without commenting first on one's thoughts on the original text. That is the very point of an adaptation and must be evaluated in those terms. I loved "Jane Eyre" in middle school and reread it periodically since then. The gothic feel has since lost some of its fascination and charm since then and I have also grown weary with the long childhood introduction that bored many of my peers. I defended it in those days out of a sense of duty. But the basic narrative captivated me: a fiesty, wronged child grows in harsh conditions into a quiet, but equally strong woman. She becomes a governess and falls in love with her employer as does he with her. I hope (as my friend Anjali also hoped/guessed) that most viewers of the film will have read the book or I would continue with the short recounting of the plot. The essence of the narrative attraction is found, however, in the evenings of tension that Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre share and everything that is not spoken between them, but felt and seen. Bronte does a masterful job of crafting these small, domestic, fraught scenes and they carry the novel. They are what stay in the mind even while the familial relations and various relatives dying and leaving inheritances are forgotten. Oh, that and the mad wife in the attic, running around the house at night trying to burn the place down (There's a whole potential disertation in the Brontes for Victorian/gothic perspectives on disability and "the grotesque". I bet someone's already taken it though. Another thought for another time).

Define: "Faithful Adaptation"
I've grown (I hope for the better) away from being a purist in my hopes and dreams for film adaptations. My first introduction to the art of the adaptation was through the 1980s BBC production of the Narnia books. They enacted the books almost word for word in a low budget attempt to tell the story well. Too bad for Disney that I still think they capture the spirit better than the high budget, fancy smancy stuff they pull these days. But it set up the unrealistic belief that word for word extraction was what made the spirit come alive. While it was part of the wonder of book into sound and light, it was not what made it beautiful: it was the ethereal and immediate ability to take the heart of the book and share it, in tact, in another medium. Meaning, that a good adaptation will take the heart of character and voice and make it tangible for the viewer in images and moments the way the author makes it tangible in words choice, syntax, diction, pacing, paragraph spacing, etc.

How that is accomplished can be different for each film maker. In fact, it is also the enacted role of the reader each time the book is experienced throughout life, assuming, of course, that all great books in life could potentially be loved well several times and not just once. My favorite example of film adaptation would be Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility", whose elegant visual directing combined with Emma Thompson's screenplay was able to alter the pacing, timing, and plot elements of Jane Austen's novel and create cinematic excellence. Thompson received a Golden Globe for her screenplay that year, an award I appreciate: the task of taking Austen's language and changing it, altering it, plot and voice for human bodies to use is a daunting task. It cannot be just "straight from the novel" as I once believed. My favorite scapegoat would be the most recent "Pride and Prejudice" which involved a modern sensibility for the awkward and strange, bizarre lighting and shapes, and a strangely mixed up performance by two actors who were either 1) dreadfully miscast and 2) badly directed. I believe it was both since I've loved McFayden in "Little Dorrit" and disliked Knightly in most everything other than the first "Pirates" film.

Elemental Critique
All of that is just to give a general intro to my thoughts on film adaptations. Now to apply it to Cary Fukunaga's "Jane Eyre." I found that the film was new enough in its take on Jane to make it worth making. I think of two aspects in particular that stood out to me of strengths 1) film order and 2) timing (with music. Will explain).

This adaptation took a unique turn by starting the story the moment Jane runs from Thornfield Hall the morning after her wedding (though we don't know that at this point). We follow her as she grieves while wondering the moors and looking for a reason to be alive. She is found by someone outside of their home and she just barely made it. We are as lost as the family is, full of questions. Her childhood is then given to us in flashbacks as well as her time as governess at Thornfield. The layered rather than sequential order helps to understand why we should care about her as a child and creates curiosity and engagement: you have to pay attention to keep up with the location changes and the progression of Jane's character.

The music was stellar. It added deft mood and tone to each scene and was powerful even in its absence. There was not booming music but was left to play subtle and beautiful notes in our experience of the piece. Sound was a primary tool in making the atmosphere work in this film, and it largely succeeded in ways I don't remember in other adaptations, even ones filmed at the same location (I think this is true, though I am not certain). There were several moments of intense fright for the audience that made us jump, a particular problem if you were Ali beside me with a mostly full cup of beer. The moments of quiet in dialogue also allowed for comedic moments that I would have missed otherwise to be thoroughly enjoyed with the theatre audience who let out audible laughter and gasps at exceptional moments. So perhaps what I mean by "music" and "sound" is  fantastic editing.

And the acting. I have defined my definition of good adaptation as largely depending on the translation of character and spirit. I found Mia Wasikowska to be one of my favorite Jane Eyre's thus far. She was, as Ali said, "Beautiful, but in a way that didn't call your attention to it so you might not notice it." She gave a very controlled performance, which was very skillful but was sometimes surprising when she would have passionate moments (ala tree and lightening scene). Mr. Rochester was somewhat less satisfying to me though I know he is the hardest to time well. I missed the manipulative, nigh abusive, blunt charm he wields in the novel. This one "smiled too much" and left me confused as to whether he actually experienced a connection with Jane Eyre like he said he did, something I was not missing in the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation from 2008.

Judi Dench was, of course, a charming and perfect housekeeper.

"Jane Eyre"... Again
An interesting question, though, is why "Jane Eyre" continues to inspire new adaptations. In the last two decades of period film resurgence (the mid 1990s for the Jane Austen fan, and the work of Masterpiece Theatre), there have been three different adaptations ( out of a total of twenty two since 1963. Compare that to Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" which has seen two adaptations in the last two decades (one for tv with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and the other for the cinema with Mathew McFayden and Kiera Knightly [mistake]) and nine total adaptations (film and television) since 1952. It may be worth noting that the Austen films seem to have inspired more fan commitment and so may have not inspired quite the revisiting that our Jane has done. There were also more novels. And more spin offs including a Bollywood adaptations and one by the Church of Latter Day Saints (you think I'm kidding but I'm not). However,  perhaps an even more interesting comparison can be made between "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights", the sister-banes of young high school men's literary education: WH has had fifteen adaptations with one in the works for this year, including, apparently, a special song by Mumford and Sons (?). While still more adaptations than P&P, a gap of seven film adaptations between WH and JE is a lot of time and money spent on Jane and not on Heathcliffe.

I think it is because it offers a challenge that seems to tantilizingly easy to conquer. The small scenes between Jane and Mr. Rochester are, as I noted before, the heart of the film. There is also a very intangible spirit to the novel that is difficult to capture and is key to how I define faithful to the original text. There is also something to be said for the fact that I have been watching "Jane Eyre" adaptations for a long time, to the point that I get them confused with each other. Many of them are not profoundly different from each other, especially this most recent one and the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, which I need to see again to decide whether it is indeed my favorite.

My great appreciation for the plethora of adaptations and most particularly this most recent one was that it allows different aspects of the novel to be explored and greater understanding for the long time reader. I am particularly grateful for the editing in this film that allowed subtext to rule the dialogue and interactions of Mr. Rochester and Jane. I felt as if I understood the subtext and followed it for the first time. But perhaps that can also be attributed for the process of growing up in a story and finding my own self more able to understand and enjoy what I had always felt to be worth investing in.

Also see a review of Anajlai Narayanan, who was with me to see this film: