Friday, September 30, 2016


Allie Brosh, from "Menace"
We all know about costumes. From playing "dress up" at home, to halloween, they've always been a part of American culture, though sometimes relegated to the eventually put-away basket of "childish things." More recently, though, at events such as ComiCon and its spinoffs, dressing up as one's favorite comic book or film hero (or villain) has risen to new heights, as adults have poured enormous time and money into what's been dubbed "cosplay." This art reached either its zenith -- or, depending on your view, its nadir -- when Bryan Cranston crashed ComiCon in a cosplay mask of his character, Walter White, from Breaking Bad. So was it Bryan Cranston cosplaying Walter White -- or was it Bryan Cranston cosplaying some nobody cosplaying Walter White. An almost existential crisis ensued.

Because, in one sense, everything is a costume, from a business suit to a bathrobe, and even our most authentic selves are, at least in part, performance. Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players" hints at this, but in more recent times, scholars of performance theory have looked at "performativity" as, in fact, the deepest layer of identity, not its shallowest. Perhaps it's not just Frank Abagnale -- whose ability to transform, chameleon-like, into an airline pilot, a doctor, or a college professor inspired the film Catch Me If You Can -- but all of us who, even when doing what we actually do, are performing.

So costumes, then, have a power -- a power to make or alter one's identity. Never has this been made more poignantly clear than in Allie Brosh's story "Menace," in which a dinosaur costume transforms her into -- well, into a dinosaur, with nearly disastrous results. But because adults like to feel that they should grant their children the pleasure of imaginative play, it takes some time before her parents put two and two together and realize that it's the costume that's "doing" it. And so they dispose of it, as as Allie describes it, "And so my reign of power came to an end, and I slowly learned to live as a person again."

So for this assignment, choose a costume. It could be an actual costume that you wore for Halloween, or a costume you might design and wear yourself today. The first part of this assignment is for you to describe this costume in words; omit nothing, and be as vivid as possible. Include some statement as to how this costume did, or would, make you feel when wearing it.

Then, give or send this description to another member of your group, and get a description from someone else (in the 4-person groups, you can exchange with a partner; 3-person groups should do a 'round robin' where Person A gives their paper to Person B, Person B to Person C, and Person C to Person A). Once you've received the description of this costume, your assignment is to draw it. Include as many of the details as possible, and see if you can't also give the person an expression which shows how the costume makes them feel. Look at Allie Brosh for inspiration -- she's managed to take the most basic, wobbly-lined, almost primitive kind of drawing on a computer tablet, and turn it to genius. Use any materials of your choice, and any technique: crayons, painting, collage, fibers, ink, and glue. Don't show your drawing to the person whose description it is before Tuesday's classa meeting. I'll see you there!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter ...

Ancient Greek Love-letter
What makes a letter a letter? Human beings seem to have been writing letters from the moment we started writing. One of the oldest cuneiform tablets discovered – it’s nearly 4,000 years old -- turned out to be a complaint about a bad business transaction by a copper merchant named Nanni. One of the oldest letters known in Britain, written in Roman script, is a birthday invitation from one Claudia Severa to her sister Lepidina; it dates to the first century A.D.. Letters have been written on stone, clay, papyrus, bark, sheepskin, and paper – and now, of course, on the far less durable stuff of electronic space. A novel can be composed of imaginary letters – it’s known as an “epistolary” novel, and letters can be addressed to anyone, whether or not they are real. Every year, tens of thousands of children write letters to Santa Claus, and the U.S. Postal service offers to send responses, if the letters are posted to North Pole, Alaska. Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple opens with a letter to God, and C.S. Lewis once wrote a book consisting entirely of letters from one demon to another.

IN 1941, my father, who was then just fourteen years old, wrote a letter, addressed to "whom it may concern," in which he described his life plans. He then hid the letter in a box, and hid the box inside a wall -- where it was discovered fifteen years later when the house was torn down. Remarkably, he had actually followed just about the path he'd planned when he was a teenager. In her book Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh describes finding a letter written when she was ten years old, and addressed to her future self. The interesting thing about this kind of letter is that it’s actually possible for it to be properly delivered. So for this project, we're going to sit right down and write ourselves a letter ... 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

My Object, Myself

We all have them -- or had them. Many were quite simple -- a lucky coin, a ball of lint, an acorn from a trail in the woods of summer camp, an old house key. Some were more elaborate, with promises of mystery and adventure: one of my own childhood treasures was my PF Flyers Secret Decoder Ring. Never mind that PF Flyers were sneakers reserved for total dorks (any cool kid would have had Chuck Taylors, or at least Keds); the ring, complete with a transparent rotating dial that could encode and decode messages, and a secret compartment to store them in, was cooler than cool.

In childhood, there seems to be a pure delight in things that becomes more difficult as time goes by. We change, and our favorite things change with us; the toys of yesterday lie forgotten in our attics (a scene evoked in the Velveteen Rabbit, a book I would argue isn't for kids at all, but adults, who have "put away childish things"). We leave them, or lose them, or try to bring them along even after the magic has passed, and they've become merely the memory of the things they were. Could we have them back again, we would almost have to create a sort of museum, complete with glass cabinets and explanatory signs, telling others -- and reminding us -- what they meant, and when, and why.

And there are other sorts of objects as well -- objects of fascination, or terror, whose associations bring back hatred, dread, or sorrow. Such objects are at the core of the David Mamet story, "The Rake," which includes not only that implement, but also a glass table, lockers that can't be locked, a game in which the parents pretend to abandon their children, and real-life dramas in which they do. Some objects -- guns, switchblade knives, brass knuckles -- live only to harm, while others, seemingly innocent, can still be turned to harm. And, to protect us from such things, there is yet another class of objects which seem to shield us from misfortune: a charm bracelet, a lucky clover, a St. Christopher medal, or a magic ring.

When I was only about one year old, my great-grandfather Elbert gave me two old silver-certificate dollar bills; these were then being phased out of circulation, and finding one was seen as a sign of fortune. Along with them, he included a note to me: "I am sending you a couple of of "Lucky Bucks" to give you a good start in life -- may you collect a million of them." That hasn't happened -- yet -- but I still carry one in my pocket everywhere I go. After all, who knows?

So what's your special object? What thing, among all things, best represents you, your aspirations, your sense of yourself? Over the next week, we'll be sharing these objects, and finding ways that, through drawing and writing, we can use them as spurs to a kind of language that does the same thing for us today that these objects once did when we were children.