Félicité: What is Your Part in the Orchestra?

Félicité (2017) is a dizzying and beautiful film by Senegalese director Alain Gomis. It is a slice of life in Kinshasa that concerns Félicité, a nightclub singer whose teenage son is in a motorbike accident. In the first half of the film,  she is frantically doing all she can to save her son, but soon the film slows down. It becomes a portrait that encompass isolation, grief, community, and the ambiguities of a practical and romantic companionship. 

Félicité official poster

Two sets of interludes break up the film’s main narrative: dreamscapes of a forest outside the city in an inky-purple hue;  and scenes of an orchestra and choir in a cold blue-green light. Each time the latter appeared, I turned the volume up a bit more on my sound system. The beauty of the music — structured sounds from calm-faced musicians and singers — was especially moving in a film full of chaotic domestic and street scenes. 

Perhaps I was especially primed to pay attention to these scenes. I had recently been thinking about orchestras as a metaphor for the moment we find ourselves in (a global pandemic, a heightened awareness of structural racism, an election year of dire importance). Each of us take up prominent roles when called for. Each of us supporting the whole effort in the background as it progresses: flute, violin, and drum, each essential in their way. 

And Félicité knows this. She is a musician herself, a singer in a raucous nightclub. But at one point she is so filled with grief over her situation and her son’s accident that she can not sing, even as her bandmates play and encourage her. The scene ends abruptly as she walks off stage and the band halts. Of course, her life goes on. None of us can ever truly walk off stage. In our ways, we have to keep singing, and keep sustaining those around us. 

Tabu, the repairman and nightclub drunk whose presence in Félicité’s life grows as the film progresses, also shows us that life pushes onward. He is repeatedly present and available to help (except when he drinks too much at the club). He might not know a lot about refrigerators, or how to carry a boy out of a hospital, or how to care for that traumatized boy, but he’s game. He steps in to take on the challenges in front of him, eventually succeeding at most in his slow, lumbering way. 

This may be the message of Gomis’ slice of life film. We are there for each other when we take on the challenges in front of us. We each have to play our parts as best we can to move forward. 


Observations in the Time of Coronavirus: 5 p.m.

At 5:20 p.m., my speakers come to life with music. A streaming radio station from Minneapolis, my hometown. It’s an alarm I set three or four years ago, timed for a brief segment of banter between the empathetic DJ and a charming curmudgeon of a newsman I’d known from Twitter. The newsman has since retired, but I keep the 5:20 alarm. The music reminds me to end my work day and transition to something else. I’ve worked from home for years, and so the coronavirus stay-at-home order had not been a huge change for my nine to five. But after five is harder. These days, the music station is often playing songs by musicians who’ve fallen ill or died from the coronavirus. They now interrupt their usual programming with news headlines from NPR and their sister news station. I think of friends and family in far off Minnesota.

The debate in the news today has been over face masks. Preparing for my walk, I’ve dug out a stylish scarf and a black balaclava I once wore under my bike helmet in winter (the bike rides are shorter now and the winters are warmer). But neither of these things will easily and comfortably stay over my nose and mouth. And it’s warm out. Near 70 degrees. I don’t plan to go inside any buildings on today’s walk. I plan to avoid other people, walk less-trafficked streets. So I hang the scarf and the balaclava on my coatrack for another day. I step outside, wondering if this was a mistake.

Outside silence. There are cars. But this is Friday at what would be rush hour. The time between distant vrooms and whooshes can be counted slowly. Tens of seconds filled instead with bird song. Wind rustling blue tarps on the scaffolding of the old school. The squeaking sound of vinyl rubbing against vinyl as a sun-bleached banner relaxes its folds to lay flat against a chain-link fence that clatters on its poles. Somewhere a soft clinking of metal at the same rhythm as a railroad crossing’s warning bell.

“Hey There,” a man shouts. He’s the first person I’ve seen out. But he’s not talking to me. He is in a hurry, taking big strides in black shorts, black sandals, black gloves, black jacket, black sunglasses, black sandals.

The speakerphone in his hand replies to his greeting: “Hi Mr. ———. How are you today?”

I wander further. The sun is out. The flowering trees are all in bloom. Neighbors are talking to each other at a distance across front yards.

I am squinting as I face the low evening sun and fail to spot two athletic men until we are twelve feet apart. They recoil from me, struggling to break step and fall in to a single file line, balancing like schoolchildren at the edge of a garden.

A restaurant on 14th Street has music blaring and perhaps eight people near its tiny outdoor bar, many with drinks in hand. Everything is to-go now, but perhaps if the to-go order takes long enough to prepare, the restaurant can sell two rounds of drinks. I stay on the quieter side of the street. Two women walking their dog notice what I’ve noticed. One says, “I do not understand these people. It makes me so angry!”

Just then my phone vibrates with a New York Times alert: “The C.D.C. advises all Americans to wear non-medical masks, President Trump said. He added: ‘I’m choosing not to do it. It’s only a recommendation.’”

I turn away from the commercial streets. I walk minor residential streets, but even these are busy now. I turn down an alley to avoid crossing paths with more people. I follow the alleys home. At my gate, I wave my touch-less key fob and pull the gate towards me by grabbing a low area of the fence my neighbors are less likely to have touched. Inside the apartment I hang my coat, wondering if it is contaminated. I wash my hands and begin making dinner.

One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.


Observations in the Time of Coronavirus: 2 p.m.

Construction, Stillness and Caffeine Withdrawal

2 p.m. // The construction site outside my window begins to quiet down in the 2 p.m. hour (construction is considered “essential” under Mayor Bowser’s stay-at-home order). The crew shows up between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., so anyone on site much later than 2:30 or 3 p.m. is likely due overtime pay. The hammers and rebar cutters and beeping trucks slow. Only a few finishing touches and cleanup are left on the day’s big push. No new messes or deliveries. With less noise from the work crew, I open my windows. The sound of birdsong has taken over the empty city. 

Inside the apartment, I have a big cooking project going. Chili in the slow-cooker fills the space with the smell of spices that I’ll harvest at dinner time. I give it a stir and then chop an apple and heat some water for herbal tea.

2 p.m. is the hour I long ago set to stop having caffeine. In practice, this alert—when it popped up on my phone—had become a reminder to hurry up and make a final cup of coffee to go with my light afternoon snack (lately an apple with peanut butter or cashews). 

Back in mid-February, when COVID was barely on my radar, I listened to this interview with Michael Pollan about caffeine (and the short Audible story he was promoting). Pollan doesn’t come up with any serious health reasons to avoid caffeine, but a researcher suggests he can’t understand the chemical compound without getting it out of his system for a time. And that’s what Pollan sets out to do. As he tapers his dosage and goes through withdrawal, he finds it harder to write, but his sleep is far better, and his moods more level. As I listened, I realized that I’ve had caffeine in my bloodstream almost continuously since my first barista job in the mid-1990s. Few days off from coffee in 25 years, if any. Maybe this caffeine-tapering experiment is one worth trying? And so I began gradually brewing smaller and smaller doses of caffeine in the morning, and cut out any small amounts of caffeine (green tea, chocolate) from my 2 p.m. snack. 

Making a major change to your daily chemical addictions just as a global pandemic starts might sound ill advised. It might be something you postpone along with the baseball season and St. Patrick’s Day bar crawls. But I was deep in to the experiment by the time stay-at-home became the clear best practice for flattening the curve of COVID’s spread. At least I’m ahead of the game if coffee becomes as scarce as toilet paper. I’m not completely off the drug yet. There is still about 1/4 real coffee mixed in with the decaf I’ve started brewing in the morning (and even decaf has traces of caffeine). I no longer feel a craving for a 2 p.m. dose, and could probably go to all-decaf tomorrow if I wanted (but I’ll wait until I run out of regular). I’m finding that the afternoon is less up and down, steadier. And I’m sleeping well, which is likely not what most people are saying these days.  

Still, I get tired by the end of the 2 p.m. hour. I start my day of screen work and house chores around the same time the construction crew starts their day of building concrete forms and positioning rebar. As the clock nears 3, I remind myself it’s OK to take it slow. I play a guided meditation on my phone instead of clicking on the unread COVID alerts from the Post and the Times. I’ll come back to email later. 

Inspired by Half/Life, a 2019 collaboration with Katherine Mann and Kristin Hatleberg. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.


Man on the 90 Bus

You got a place to stay? You doing alright? 
There’s one thing you’ve got to have and that’s a place to stay
Because nobody can afford the rent 
But I’ve got it figured out 
No rent!
That’s the best rent
I watch over the apartments
Big complex up on the hill 
Boss pays me to live there
He’s got more buildings than he knows what to do with 
And I’ve got keys to all of ‘em
He gave me a raise last week
Keeps sending more keys direct from the bank
Every day another envelope jangling 
FedEx, UPS 
Empty places all over town
It’s no trouble watching an empty place
Full place is a lot more work
Have my girl living in one of them now
She was staying with her people 
That wasn’t working
No alone time there if you know what I mean
Brought her there last week 
Had it all set up
TV, sofa, bottle of wine 
“This place yours?” she said
“No. It’s all yours sweetheart,” I said
No sense paying rent if you don’t have to 
But I’m about done with D.C.
I’m going to make my way to North Carolina 
It’s all set up 
Just a little more money
A little more time 
No sense staying in D.C. any longer 
Not when there’s nobody left can afford the rent 

I’ve been riding the bus all my life, but in recent years, the convenience of Uber has tempted me — even on short trips like this one (I was headed to a reading at the fantastic Solid State Books on H Street). I chose the bus in part because rent was on my mind and $7 saved is $7 I can set aside for my landlord.  

I don’t know if my seat-mate thought I was homeless — I hope I looked more put together than that — but his opening question seemed sincere, and his relief at hearing that I had a place to stay felt genuine. Or maybe he was hoping to set me up in one of the places he watches over. His story — condensed with only a few small poetic details altered in this telling — felt surreal to me. Real, in that apartment building superintendent is a real job. Real, in that displacement is a real issue in D.C. Surreal, in that his world seemed to be one in which all the buildings are hollow shells that bankmen stockpile for strange and inhuman ends. 

Many luxury apartments sit vacant after being purchased — monuments to money of sometimes dubious origin . NYC’s growing crop of extravagant air rights spires and Miami’s reputation for no-questioned-asked all-cash real estate deals may be the most glaring examples, but I have to wonder how many units in D.C.’s gleaming new apartment buildings sit vacant as places to park cash while the region struggles to build the 340,000 units of housing it will need to build this decade.


Welcome to the Conversation

Last week I posed a question without answering it: “What is the conversation you want to be having?” (or, “What conversation do you want to be a part of?”).

I drafted an answer as part of that post before realizing that (a) the question part was plenty long and deserved to stand on its own, and (b) my answer would be a long and rambling one. The answer wasn’t the second half of one blog post, and it isn’t this blog post. The answer would be all the blog posts to follow, all of the work to follow. 

But I do have ideas about this conversation I want to be a part of. It is sure to evolve — as all sustained conversations do — but for starters it will be a conversation about art and commerce, surviving vs. thriving as an artist, collaboration, creativity, politics and friendship. It’s about everything we wrestle with when we struggle to express ourselves: honesty, misunderstanding, anxiety, silence, noise, attention. These ideas are coming together now as I work to build out this website as an intentional coming-together of commercial work and artistic collaborations in to dialogue on this website in order to strengthen both.

But this conversation will also be about history, books, film, and music. It will be a conversation that jumps from storytelling to practical advice, and from cultural criticism to poetry.  

How we talk about ourselves and what we talk about lead to different relationships, different outcomes. Where we talk is just as important. Picture the different modes of conversation in each of these places: 

  • a loud restaurant
  • the back row of a hushed movie screening
  • in bed
  • walking the city
  • on a stage with two chairs before a large audience 
  • in a Facebook thread, or on Twitter
  • from a high window to the sidewalk below
  • in essays published months or years apart

I arrange my apartment to be a welcoming place for conversation. There are books, art and plants surrounding comfy places to sit. When I host a group of friends, I make coffee and set out snacks. These are choices that allow the conversation I want to be having to take place. This website is also an intentional space. It takes a bit of effort to get here from your usual hangouts, the din on Twitter, the hurly-burly of Facebook, so thanks for making your way over. Hang up your coat. Join the conversation.

books essays film

Why I Didn’t Read ‘Little Women’ Until Age 44

Back in December, I was excited to hear that Greta Gerwig had a new film coming out. One of the first things I heard about the film was that she had departed from the source material in interesting ways, ways that critics described as feminist and innovative. I was excited about this, but embarrassed that I hadn’t read the source material. A gap in my reading history had become an obstacle to my love of film. So I finally read Little Women in the week or two before the film opened in D.C. As I did so, I couldn’t help but ask myself why I’d never read Louisa May Alcott until now.

Many of the ideas that ran through my head are explored thoroughly by Anne Boyd Rioux in “Why Don’t More Boys Read Little Women?” — a book excerpt that LitHub helpfully shared just when I was interrogating myself over the question. The excerpt is worth reading in its entirety (and I’m now curious about the full book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters). After pointing out that boys once read Little Women in far greater numbers, and finding some choice quotes from powerful men praising the book, Rioux cites three main ideas that have conspired to relegate Little Women to a secret rite of passage that girls “read alone with a flashlight under the covers,” rather than part of the canon for boys and girls:

  1. fear of discussing the story’s feminist implications in the classroom,
  2. a push to teach more contemporary texts, including those by women and people of color, and
  3. a focus on solving the crisis in boys’ reading rates by favoring texts perceived to be interesting to boys.

I have only the vaguest memories of Little Women from my childhood. My mother is a writer. I can picture her speaking of the book fondly, perhaps suggesting it as a book she’d like my brother and I to know and be able to discuss with her. Why didn’t I read it? In these hazy memories, the title and cover played a role. The culture had taught me that there were boys’ books and girls’ books. Yellow spines on Nancy Drew stories. Blue spines on Hardy Boys mysteries. Was I a product of the “crisis in boys reading” educators are so concerned about? I don’t think so. I remember devouring anything that was assigned and getting placed in a seperate “gifted” reading group that met outside of my usual classroom. But, yes I was more excited about after-school cartoons. Given a choice, I picked dubbed Japanese space adventures like Voltron and Robotech over a nineteenth century family drama like Little House on the Prairie (which I assume remains perpetually in syndicated daytime reruns in Minnesota today).

None of my teachers assigned Little Women. At home, my parents periodically made sure that reading something for fun was part of my brother and I’s summer, but this usually meant a trip to the library or bookstore to pick whatever we were excicted about. One exception was Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn which my parents assigned one summer ahead of an educational family road trip down the Mississippi (Mark Twain’s classics are a good foil for Little Women in Rioux’s exploration above, since they are from the same time period and widely taught tales of a typical American boys’ experience assigned to both boys and girls).

As I got older, there must have been a popular renewal of interest in Alcott in 1994 when Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women starring Winona Ryder came out. I have no recollection of such a wave then either. I was busy in college that year at the suburban/small town campus of the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. I was meeting new friends who introduced me to the books they were excited about, taking classes on literary theory and the modern novel. My reading list was dominated by the influence of those friends and professors for the next decade. They were mostly men: the friends, the professors, and the imparted canon of influences (I remember men teaching literature and women teaching writing in that English department). Beat writers, the Russians (Dostoevsky and Tolstoy mainly), and some tangents I explored on my own like Camus and Beckett and Ellison. To be sure, there were exceptions. Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison come to mind. But no Little Women.

I also recall girlfriends referencing Jo, or talking about the book with their girl friends. But by then we were all struggling to be adults — or at least I was — and making “serious” reading lists of new writers or heavy classics was part of the program. How to make room for a child’s book titled Little Women? Surely whatever lessons a book like that holds are not important to twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings or forty-somethings more than a century later, I might have thought when the book came up.

In the couple of decades since then, it’s become clear that limiting your cultural diet to the perspective of one type of person, just dudes, just white western dudes, is a kind of starvation. It should be obvious, but reading and seeing the world from the perspective of someone with a different body, a different relationship to power will inform your actions towards people unlike you. This is true on both sides of any such difference.

When I wrote more frequently about film in the mid-2000s (something I suppose I’m dipping my toes in to again with this post), I quickly joined in the culture writer’s hobby of list-keeping, ranking filmmakers and films, naming favorites and creating top tens. Once I started down this road, it quickly bled over in to my music and book habits. Once you’ve put ten filmmakers, ten musicians, or ten authors in your journal or spreadsheet, it is hard not to notice your blind spots. Either you decide you are someone who lives and dies by Tarantino and Kubrick, Trent Reznor and Mick Jagger, David Foster Wallace and Charles Bukowski — or you ask what is missing from your list, what your cultural blind spots are, what other people have on their lists that you haven’t yet stopped to consider. Maybe Agnes Varda, Patti Smith, and Margaret Atwood should be in the mix. Maybe they’re closer to the top of the list. What else is missing? Can I dig deeper? What can I learn?

Many of my friends — especially women — who grew up under the same kinds of influences I’ve just outlined now avoid reading men altogether, or are in book clubs organized around doing so. After a year or two of consciously alternating between books by those who don’t identify as male and those who do, I’ve taken a more fluid approach. I know that if I blindly take in acclaimed books and films and pursue threads of reference from one artist to the next, the scale quickly tips towards perspectives and backgrounds I’ve heard plenty from in my life. So I keep lists in notebooks and in Goodreads (and Lightbox for film) of what I’ve finished and what I’m excited to take on next, reviewing the lists as I go to make sure I’m taking in a diverse and challenging set of perspectives. It takes work, but it’s worth it.

So what’s my take on Little Women after finally having read the book and seen Gerwig’s adaptation? Loved both. Gerwig’s timeline and pacing are a delight if the book is fresh in your mind. The departures she takes from the book are light and perfectly in keeping with our understanding of Alcott’s life as a writer, and Jo’s relationship to publishing within the book. Highly recommend.


What is the Conversation You Want To Be Having?

This was my friend Danny’s question to me years ago when I was struggling to balance my identity as both an artist and a consultant. To find clients, it seemed necessary to put my most commercially valuable experience out there front and center. Coding, project management, Photoshop and digital marketing were far more likely to pay the rent than experiments in situationist-inspired speculative fiction. If I could only get enough attention for the work I was not excited about, then I could start doing the work I was excited about. Or so went my faulty reasoning.

A few years later, I was having one of the kinds of conversations I want to be having. I was talking to a new friend, Garnette, at a writers’ residency. He was pressing me on certain things that I felt were holding me back as a writer. The constant need to sell my more commercial skills came up again. But I also spoke of the tiny market for creative writing and how this scarcity crept in to the writing process, even when my instinct was to be more experimental. Though almost no one is making a living off writing, it is hard not to keep in mind conventions about acceptable styles, word counts and book formats. Garnette’s advice was twofold. One: write the book you want to write. And two: writers succeed as part of a conversation. The conversation is the goal. Publishing, relationships, opportunities all flow out from the conversations you engage with. The most important question to answer is, “what conversation do you want to be a part of?”


One Year Ago Today

10 a.m. // By random lot the next hour in my posting queue happens to include this day one year ago, November 13. And so, please remember that one year ago today the alley reeked of garbage and stale beer. It doesn’t always. Today — the first sustained sub-freezing morning of the winter of 2019 — odors are faint and distant. When the wind picks up, fresh asphalt, perhaps being trucked to a construction site, carries before resistance to the icy air overpowers my ability to focus on the sense of smell.

Also on this day in 2018, a friend and her boyfriend were on their way to the metro and I tried for the first time to explain why I was standing outside in the cold in an inhospitable place with a notebook. The explanation hasn’t gotten easier a year later.

Neither of these facts made it in to our collage for the 10 o’clock hour. Katherine’s lines suggest the cold puddles I’ve written about here, but the text sampled comes from an hour later on a different morning. We’ll encounter “mom with stroller / hey hey hey no jumping” again when it comes time to write about 11 a.m. The more mundane hours easily bleed together, and notes from early in the project were not as diligently set apart. //

I’ve not been posting these notes prompted by the Half/Life collaboration daily as I originally intended. There are 24 to post, and when I began there were about 24 days left before we’d intended to take the paintings off the walls and leave H-Space vacant. But leaving an art space vacant is a sad thing and a waste in a city so starved for such venues. With nothing programmed after us (the space’s parent organization Hamiltonian Artists is going through some restructuring), we’ve left the show up (viewable by appointment, send me a message if you’d like to stop by). Without the urgency of an end date, I’ve been giving each of these posts more time to marinate.

I am posting these writings both on Instagram and on the relaunched This new version of Future Cartographic will be a home for creative writing, for art engaged with place and time, and for building community with anyone interested in such things, including contemplation of last years’ stale beer puddles. It’s not for everybody. But it might be for you. Stop by, and drop me a note if you do.

One of 24 posts inspired by Half/Life, on view at H-Space in Washington, DC (on view indefinitely as of this posting). Contact Erik to schedule a visit. Paintings and zine on sale now in the Future Cartographic shop.