Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Last "Sunday" journal

As it turns out this journaling project has been reasonably challenging for me. Observing students is difficult, when I don't have any real interaction with them. I see students at working out at Dixon, at Java II and in the MU. I see students walking around campus, in restaurants, at the movie theatre, at the grocery store. It is a college town, I can't really go anywhere without seeing students. Yet I feel like seeing students in these superficial situations doesn't give me any real chance to make meaningful observations. I do work with biology TA's for an hour every week. But they are grad students, and while observing them is valuable, it is only one part of a small of the college student experience.

One of the things I've keep coming back to in this journal is the idea that I still don?t feel like I understand what is going on with students at OSU. Yet a conversation during class last week showed me that I am not the only one who feels this way. Several others in my cohort including those who have a lot of student interaction feel the same way. This makes me look at this question differently. Maybe understanding the student experience is not really possible. Maybe its only something you can understand while you are an undergrad. Yet I'm sure the campus climate has changed a lot at my undergrad institution in the year and a half since I graduated. So do think it is important to try to understand student experience at your university, I'm just not at all sure its achievable.

This text term, I will be teaching a study skills class, as an internship opportunity. I'm really excited for the challenge teaching is going to provide, but I'm also excited to get to work with 20 students on a meaningful basis. I will be spending 2 hours a week with them, for 10 weeks. This will allow for a LOT of observation; it's a big chance to see some of the student issues unique to OSU.
I went to see the OSU main stage musical, "Pirates of Penzance" this week with two others from my cohort. I got there early and I sat on a bench waiting for my friends to arrive. I was sort of overwhelmed. The theatre holds about 400 people and the show was sold out. For some reason, there was actually rather long line to get into the theatre, for people who already had tickets. I felt a little displaced honestly. It is a college theatre, I felt as though I should have a sense or belonging. But its not my theatre, and I don't really think it ever will be, not the way the Norton Clapp theatre at UPS belongs to me. Or more accurately, I belong to it. So for some reason I felt small and disconnected watching people mill past me at the OSU theatre. I wonder how often students new to OSU feel this way. I would assume it's quite often.

Its been interesting to watch attitudes on campus change as the weather gets cold and dreary and the term draws to a close. Tension and anxiety are so palpable you could cut them with a knife. Last week, I looked around our Monday class, Theory, right before class started. I was surprised to see how tired and limp everyone look. We are generally a pretty happy rambunctious group, but there was zero energy in the room. I assume this is happening all over campus during week 8.

I know that adjusting to a term system was difficult for me after a semester school. I wonder how difficult the transition is if you are coming from high school? I bet the difference is pretty startling. I think in freshmen classes, the week 8, 9, and 10 tension must be off the charts. I wonder if it gets easier?

I know this has been all over the place, but I a trying to make sense of some of the things I have been feeling for the last 8 weeks. I know for the most part, there are no answers to these questions. It seems to me that for now, just asking the questions is enough.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Swimming: its just like riding a bike

A few weeks ago, I swam laps for the first time in about 6 years. I was on swim team for a few years in middle school, but other than splashing around a little bit now and then I haven’t really swam seriously since then. However, last week I was working out in the room in Dixon that looks out over the pool, and I felt a wave of longing. I remembered what gliding through the water felt like, and I knew I had to go for a swim. A few days and a trip to buy a pair of goggles later, I was in the pool.

The reason I’m talking about this is that getting in the water took me back. For that split second every time my head was under water, nothing else exited. I felt like I could be 15 years old or 23, there was no difference as I slipped through the water. For me, swimming is one of those skill sets I think I will never lose, I feel like it was yesterday, not 6 years ago that I last swam. So I started thinking about other things in my life that are automatic. What are the things I can do so well, that I never doubt them? Well my list is surprisingly small. I count swimming, singing, reading aloud, writing and acting among them. I think at different points in my life this list will change and grow. And its different now than it was at 18.

Not unlike taking a 30 minute walk, swimming was 30 minutes in the water alone with my thoughts. So while I was in the pool, I thought about the things I knew and didn’t know at the age of 18. When I decided to go to a private school I took out loans to do so. At the age of 18, I didn’t really understand what this meant. I got that I would have to pay them back. I understood money. I’d had a summer job for several years, and had a little money in the bank. But I did not understand the enormous consequences of taking out a total of 30 thousand dollars in loans. In fact, it was really not until this last year that I truly comprehended it. And I haven’t even had to make any payments yet.

Only this week I found out that I have a credit card associated with the bank account I opened my freshman year of college. I had no idea. I’m not sure how this slipped by me. I think that we need to be aware of this, that while they are on their way to being competent young adults, a lot of freshmen have absolutely no experience in a lot of real life matters. I’m not suggesting that they are babies, or that we should treat them that way, but instead that we simply need to be aware that many college students may need a little extra guidance.

I wonder how this happens at a big school. I have been fixating over the last few weeks about the differences between different types of schools, but in particular, large public school versus small liberal arts school. In Programs and Functions, we have had a number of guests from different school from around the area come to speak to us about their job and their school. Finally this week we had someone come from a small private school: Linfield. As he spoke about his college, I thought “this could literally be Puget Sound he is talking about.” And it was both affirming for me to hear it, and educational for the rest of my cohort to think about the differences. There are only three of us out of 20 from school like Puget Sound or Linfield. Those numbers are reasonably surprising to me.

I talked to my sister this week about this. She went to a small private school in Ohio, Wittenberg University. I really wasn’t aware of this until now, but Wittenberg is very similar in mission and demographic to Puget Sound right down to the size, just over 2000. It literally knocks me off balance every time that I remember that OSU is ten times as large. My sister I and talked about the pros and cons of little schools and big schools. Large schools may have more resources, but small school can pay more individual attention. Large schools offer more subjects, but at small schools you can get one on one interaction with professors in your classes. The list goes on and on. For me, I think it’s important to remember that just because a small school was right for me, doesn’t mean it is the right choice for everyone.

So now I will go back to my train of thought when I was in the swimming pool. What are the things that freshman know? What are the automatic things they know how to do? How far out of their comfort zone are they willing to go? What are the things that they don’t know? I think these things are different for every single person. Making choices in live is always a combination of doing what you are good at, and talking the plunge into something more difficult.

Once I got in the pool, the strokes came back to me, and I was immediately kicking up and down my lane (the “slow” lane). But getting back in the pool after so long was not an easy decision. I wondered if the skill would still be there. And this time it was.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sickness and Health

One of the things on my mind recently has been health. I had a terrible cold two weeks ago and had to miss Monday’s class. I am the first person in the cohort to get this sick, and there was a huge discussion about it in my absence. While I know for an undergrad, missing one class is not usually an international incident it still gets me thinking.

In college attendance is a tricky thing. In high school, attendance is clearly mandatory but in college its often not. There may be participation points associated with being present, or the class is structured in such a way that presence is necessary. But I think a lot of first year students are totally baffled by the idea that they are actually paying to be in class, but no one can force you to attend.

However, illness is a big issue, especially with the paranoia surrounding H1N1. When I was sick, I would blow my nose in public, and get a combination looks of fear and sympathy from people. When I had to go to the store to buy soup and cold medicine, the cashier assumed it was for someone else sick in my home, and I let her believe that, because I didn’t want her to treat me differently. In fact, I actually think she thought I had a sick child at home, but that is maybe beyond the point, while it does feed into my earlier musings about assumptions.

But what are we telling/doing for sick students? The OSU health center website suggests that an ill student living in a residence hall should leave and go home until they are well, if possible. While I understand that the majority of OSU students are from the state of Oregon, I wonder how many are within comfortable distance to go home to their parent’s house if they are ill? And if you are more than maybe 20 minutes away, would you really want to drive? Or even travel? While I understand that residence halls are incubation for sick students this seems unreasonable.

Another interesting thing that has come to my attention is the biology department’s policy about missing lab. Beginning this year, no makeup labs are allowed: unless the student is sick. This raises an interesting problem. Clearly if a student is seriously ill and needs to rest, we don’t want them in class. If they are this sick, we also probably don’t want their germs in class either. However, this leaves us with a trust system. A cold is not something you need a doctors note for, but how do we determine if students are really “sick enough” to miss lab? We just have to trust student’s judgment, I suppose. But there is an element of mistrust surrounding this issue still for some reason.

All this talking about illness has me thinking about an incident my freshman year of college. Someone in my residence hall had scarlet fever, which is something I thought people only got in “Little House on the Prairie.” At the same time, I was sick in my dorm room bed for a few days with just a regular garden variety fever and missed class. And a miscommunication with a friend led to my entire math class thinking I also had scarlet fever. The culmination of this was my RA knocking on my door and telling me she was the worst RA ever for not knowing one of her residents had scarlet fever. This was the first I had heard of it. And I was effectively Typhoid Mary for a few days until it got around that I had never in fact had scarlet fever. Now it’s a funny anecdote that comes up with my college friends from time to time, “Hey, Char, remember when the whole school thought you had scarlet fever?” But really it is a representation of the negatives effects assumptions about illness can have on people.

So how should a campus respond to sickness? Overreacting clearly is not helpful, but keeping students informed and healthy is important, and necessary. Yet striking the right balance between the two is difficult. My big sister is teaching in Bulgaria currently and the school she teaches at is closed for a week because of the number of H1N1 cases in Sofia. So I do understand that this flu season is clearly not a laughing matter, yet people are also overreacting. I’m not sure what I think the administration at OSU should be doing to keep people calm and informed. I’m just not sure its happening currently.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"My Name is Rachel Corrie"

Last week, I went to see “My Name is Rachel Corrie” produced by the OSU theatre department. Again, like the Laramie Project, this is a play with a strong tie to student affairs. “My Name is Rachel Corrie” is a one woman show complied from the emails, journals, and letters of Rachel Corrie. She was a student at Evergreen State Collge who went to Palestine to do peaceful protesting, and was killed by a bulldozer in 2003 in Gaza.

I can see exactly why OSU chose to do these two plays, “The Laramie Project,” and “My name is Rachel Corrie” in addition to their regular season. Both plays deal with subject matter that is very important for any college campus. Both Rachel Corrie and Matthew Shepherd were university students at the time of their deaths, and this kind of tragedy hugely affects campuses, and in their cases, the world. While the circumstances of their lives and their tragic deaths are very different, both called attention to a world wide issue, and each of them left an unexpected legacy.

The structure of these two plays is in some ways opposite. “The Laramie Project” is taken from the words of everyone except Matthew Shepard, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” is taken entirely from Rachel’s own words. Additionally, “The Laramie Project” begins with Matthew’s death, and “My Name is Rachel Corrie” ends with Rachel’s death. Because "My name is Rachel Corries" ends with Rachel’s death, the play itself does not explore the reaction of Evergreen students, or the reaction of the world. Yet her death must have had a profound impact. Instead, the play shows how a young woman like Rachel felt compelled to put herself in a dangerous situation: to help others.

Through the play, in her own words, the character of Rachel speaks of feeling lost in life, until she took a class at Evergreen that encouraged her to get involved in the community. From there the path to the Gaza strip seemed to clearly open itself up to her. This is the piece of her story that caused me to want to write about the play for my journal this week. I think so many college students are constantly looking for this moment, when their world simply lines itself up, and the path is clear.

Of course, I understand that the play is taken from only some of Rachel Corries words, and of course, only those thoughts, experiences and feeling she was willing to put down on paper. But even when she was in Palestine, she didn’t seem to feel any fear for herself, or for her own life. Instead, she wanted to know how she was ever supposed to find any meaning in life after she left Palestine. She talked of going to France, or going home to Olympia, but imagined she would be racked by guilt. I think this is a reasonably common feeling. I think that most young people who have some kind of life changing event such as serving in the Peace Corps have survivor’s guilt, or readjustment shock. It seems immeasurably sad to me that she didn’t ever get to leave; she never got the chance to see how this experience would affect the rest of her life.

In some ways I am stuck on Rachel Corrie’s story because I feel that it could have been mine. I could have made the choices she made. But I felt that my calling was working with the homeless through AmeriCorps, not peaceful protesting in Palestine. I feel aligned with Rachel Corrie, with all young people who feel a need to change the world in their own small way.

I find myself having to keep using the terminology of “being called.” When I was in high school I read Barbra Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” and was fascinated with the tragedies it told of Africa. It was my first experience with these horrors, they had never occurred to me before. In some ways it is a miracle that I’ve never signed up to go do work in Africa. I think that’s fine. I don’t regret my choices. I’m not placing any value judgment on any of these things. I don’t think every one who wants to make a difference need to go the Gaza strip. And I don’t think that is the message of “My Name is Rachel Corrie.” I don’t think Rachel Corrie herself would pass any judgment in this way either, I just think this happened to be her calling.

Now I have to come back to student affairs. All of this is great you may say, but what does it have to do with observations of student experiences? I think that every thoughtful student addresses this issue at some point, wanting to know how they are called to make a difference in the world. So what are universities doing to help students with these moments? How are we encouraging our youth to be global citizens? Who in my life helped me pursue volunteerism? Who in Rachel Corrie’s life helped her decide that activism was her life’s purpose?

While Rachel Corrie’s life was sadly cut short, she lived according to her values, which has to be respected. Yet, she was just a girl, and I’m not idealizing her, nor is the play. However, she has become an example of what following your heart can look like. Yes, it’s sad that she was killed by a bulldozer, it’s a huge tragedy. But the way she lived her life should be an inspiration to anyone, college students and beyond. And if we don’t learn something form this, that would be the real tragedy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Campus Climate: I need a thermometer

This week, I have a lot of questions about how to gauge a campus climate. OSU is now my school, but I don’t feel very connected to it. I feel connected to the CSSA program, and to my job, but I don’t have a lot of contact with students in general. I really have no idea what is going on with the undergraduates. I don’t spend a lot of time on campus. I don’t really have reason to.

This week I specifically spent some time on campus, both in the library and in a coffee shop, Java II. I was surprised to find how loud the library was on a Sunday afternoon. I went with a two hour window of time, hoping to get a lot of work done, but was seriously distracted by a group of exceedingly loud young men in the quiet section. I was surprised by this level of disrespect.

You can see a lot of different things in the library, people studying alone, in pairs, in small groups. But it occurs to me that anything I observe on campus is just a tiny window into someone’s life. Students are involved in a huge number of things, and observing them in one activity sheds no light into the rest of their lives. I see students working out at Dixon, but what else are they doing? What clubs are they in? What classes are they taking? I have no idea.

So this leads me to the issue of balance. How do we know what kind of balance students have in their lives, when we don’t know what they are doing? Even the biology TA’s I work with, I only see a tiny portion. I spend an hour with them once a week, and know what issues they are facing with their labs, but what do I really know?

Something I was discussing this week with my mentor in the CSSA program is this issue of accountability. Student affairs as a profession is pushing students to live balanced lives, with a healthy level of all activities. Yet we are student affairs professionals are not always setting a good example. As grad students, especially, we are expected to do a lot. Part time or full time jobs, part time or full time classes, and we are still expected to live “balanced” lives. I’m not entirely sure how to do this, and in that case how do we encourage students do the same?

I think that I need to continue to purposefully spend more time on campus to observe, but that creates an imbalance in my own life. I still think that no matter how much observing I do, I will only be seeing a small part of student experience. I’m really not sure how to see more than a small sliver of the whole. I do have a game plan. I will start reading the Barometer, going to events, and have my powers of observation turned on whenever I am on campus. But will this be enough? It will have to be a good start,I guess, but it won't solve the whole problem of me feeling disconnected from the pulse of OSU.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Laramie Project: 10 years later

I finally went to my first play in Oregon. Can you believe it took me over a month to figure out where on campus the theatre even is? However, this is not my typical review, but third in my weekly journal series. It is theatre looked at through the lens of student affairs.

Last week I went to "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" produced in the main stage theatre on the OSU campus as a staged reading. This was the follow up to the play The Laramie Project. Both the original Laramie Project and the new epilogue are a very unique theatrical experience. The Laramie Project was produced as a reaction to the tragic death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. He was brutally beaten by two young men and left tied to a fence half dead for four days before he was found, and his death attracted massive national attention to hate crimes, and to the town of Laramie, Wyoming.

OSU was one of over 100 theatres to produce a staged reading of this new play, on October 12, the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. The Laramie Project is the intersection of my two passions: theatre and student affairs. Much of the discussion of the Laramie Project is around Matthew Shepard as student at the University of Wyoming. The play raises a lot of questions. How does a university respond to such an enormous tragedy? What does a horrific hate crime do to the perception of a small town and the university housed in it? How do students and professors and community move on? The Laramie Project posed some of these questions. In the days of the media coverage surrounding Matthew Shepard's death, a theatre company went to Laramie and conducted hundreds of interviews with the people of the town, the local sheriff, professors and students at the university and Matthew Sheppard's friends and family. The play is taken from these interviews, literally from the words of these people. Because of that, it is a very special theatre experience.

"The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" is just what it says. The same theatre company members went back to Laramie and re-interviewed all the people they'd talked to 10 years earlier. Many real life people recur as characters in both plays. The police officer who found Matthew Shepard shares that experience the first time around and in the follow up discusses how dramatically her life was changed by it. A university professor shares her thoughts on the changes in the school itself in the intervening years. In this way, these people feel familiar. We as the audience get to see their journey.

While I've been setting up the context, I think the thing I want to discuss here is how this play impacts college campuses and what the effect of having it preformed on ours might be. A lot of the epilogue discuses the idea that the town of Laramie wants to move on. One of the ways they are doing this is claiming that Matthew Shepard's death was not related to him being gay, but was a truly a robbery. Yet the play shows a variety of view points. It truly does its best to show every person as just that, a real person. In this follow up, the company members were able to interview both of the men serving time for Matthew Shepard's murder. And one of the strengths here, is that neither of these plays are trying to prove anything, no agenda to push other that honest and through investigation of the reaction to a nation tragedy. And the two murderers are not painted as two dimensional criminals, but as troubled young men with a lot of life factors leading them up to one truly terrible act. Nor does the play attempt to exonerate either of them from their actions.

Yet in the interest of moving on from this that has me interested. The play does not go in depth into the university's grieving process, and importantly to my lens here, student affairs role in it. One man interviewed states that he is openly gay, and almost left Laramie because of Matthew Shepard's death. But he met the man who is still his partner at Mathew Shepard's memorial service and the two of them still live in Laramie. He works in a non specified department of student affairs at the university. He called student affairs a safe cocoon and indicated that the rest of the town and the university itself is still not as accepting. This is the root of the discussion, this idea that nothing has changed.

In "10 years later" they discuss the 10 year coverage of the incident in the town's newspaper. An editorial in the paper stated that "Laramie is a town, not a project" and this attitude is reflected through out. Yet how do they move on from something that put them on the map in the worst way possible? What does a new college freshman do, when starting at a new college in a new town, when the only thing people ever know of their home town is this tragedy? The town is ready to move on, but have they healed?

So this brings me back to OSU. An article in the Barometer a few weeks ago stated that we were the only university in the state of Oregon doing this staged reading. While nothing I read indicated any kind of selection process for which theatres could take part in the staged readings, the article expressed disappointment that no other universities in Oregon took part. I'm inclined to think there was some kind of process. Surely more than 100 theatres all over the world, would want to take part in this event. Strictly as a play, the Laramie Project has a lot of prestige. The interview structure is interesting and the play itself is moving. So why are no more theatres involved? A part of me thinks that my alma mater, Puget Sound would have had a huge support for this play if they'd taken part. They didn't, for whatever reason.

The main stage theatre that this happened in at OSU holds 360 people. It was 95 percent full; I was disappointed that there were not more students or faculty or staff or community members interested. Maybe it wasn't well publicized. But maybe people don't remember what happened. Without the play, I wouldn't know. I was 12 years old 11 years ago; I had no idea when it happened. If I hadn't had a chance to see the Laramie Project when I was in college I might have had no interested in seeing this follow up to it. Most of the students at OSU may not have any idea who Matthew Shepard was or what the importance of the Laramie Project is. But is this good and natural, or is it cause for concern?

Maybe it's just that we as a nation are ready to move on. I'm just worried that we are moving on because we don't want to dwell on tragedy, or that we don't remember. I wish that we were moving on because we have recovered, and healed. Laramie just happens to be the place this happened, and this university could be any university. This is why I am concerned that this event didn't get more attention. How can we move on from a tragedy we haven't recognized? Laramie could be any town and that is part of the tragedy of it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Small Fish in a Big Pond

This week for my second journal I've been thinking about students at a big university, as I've now found myself. I went to a small private liberal arts school, of about 2 thousand. I am now at a huge public University of over 20 thousand. At Puget Sound, my largest class was probably 50, (and I only ever had one class this large, and ironically it was a biology lecture) my smallest class was about 8. I'd say that most classes were around 20 students. This creates a special environment where all of my professors know my name, and I got a lot of individual attention. When the class is that small, as a student, you are very responsible. Responsible for being present, responsible for having done all the work and always having an opinion. And while this small environment was prefect for me, it may not be what everyone is looking for.

During the first week of class I didn’t send a lot of time on campus if I wasn’t in class, at work, or studying for class. This was my second week of school and I felt a little less overwhelmed by classes, and I spent some time on campus during the day. I spent some time observing other students. And there are so many of them. I can't help but feel very anonymous on the OSU campus. I rarely see people I know, and when I do its considerably exciting. At Puget Sound, I couldn't go anywhere with out seeing everyone I knew. And even if I didn't know names I knew faces. And I miss that. I think that the anonymity of a big school could be both exhilarating and terrifying. But maybe it gets smaller? I'm not sure.

This week, for my assistantship, I sat in on a biology 211 lecture. There are two lectures, with a total of over 1000 students enrolled in the class. This is half the size of my undergraduate institution! The lecture I went to had 600 students registered. I'm not sure how many seats the auditorium in Miliam holds or how many were actually there. But 600 students. I sat in the upper balcony very far from the professor. There is no one up there to monitor what the students are doing. One of the biology TA's I work with was observing form the upper balcony, but he didn't seem to be there in a disciplinary function. From where I was sitting I could see about 4 open laptops. And of the two screens I could see, one was following along with the black board presentation and one was playing some kind of game. Right in view of everyone around him! The student sitting directly next to me was taking notes and following the lecture, but also texting on his phone. While I clearly know all of these things are issues, I've never experienced any of them before. I am only one year out of college; I expected to still have a good sense of the "student experience." But some combination of the extra 20,000 students at OSU and the 5 years that now separate me from a college freshman leave me feeling clueless. Student trends move fast. And as an aside (but on the same point) spell check does not recognize "texting" as a word. With the technology college students have in their lives, their lives move at lightning speed. How do I even attempt to keep up?

Sitting in on the lecture leads me directly back to where I was last week: assumptions. During the lecture the professor gave a quiz question and gave the class permission to speak to their neighbor. The question was based on the lecture I had just heard, but I hadn't really been paying attention to the biology. I'd been absorbing the environment, the professor's style of lecture, and what the students around me where doing. The young man next to me asked me what I thought about the quiz question, assuming I was a student. I truly had no idea at all, so I threw the question back to the young man. What do you think the answer is? And he said "E." I told him I thought that might be right (still having zero idea) and finally he talked himself in the right answer, which was "D." I didn't tell him I wasn't in the class because it was unnecessary, but it was rather humorous to bluff my way through a biology question.

I know part of the reason we have so many school in the US, is that every school is not right for every person. Yet I continue to feel like I’m on another planet, as far as being a student goes. And I’m hugely glad to be experiencing something different, if I’m going to work in student affairs, I should be aware of all types of institutions and how the affect the students.

In the coming weeks I plan to investigate what some of the issues students at a big school face might be. Currently I have no idea. I plan to do a little sleuthing. If I spend some more time on campus, and go to more campus activities, and I think some things should start revealing themselves to me. What is it that makes OSU special? And what kind of educational experience can an undergraduate student really expect to get here? I’m ready to find some more questions and answers.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Weekly journal: the beginning

Clearly I haven’t been doing such a great job with my blog. I really do intend to continue writing. I think I will be crazy busy soon, but there are things I still want to explore.

For one of my classes, a first year transition seminar, I’ve been asked to write weekly journal articles. My journals are emailed to my professor, and don’t have to take a specific direction, or be a prescribed length. What they are supposed to be is a reflection on student experiences, things I’ve observed on campus, or even reactions to articles I’ve read. So it occurs to me (actually it occurred to MoM) that I should go ahead and post these journals here. Because what does that assignment sound like, if not a blog?

So here comes my first journal.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the assumptions that people make on a college campus. I am only one year out of college. I am 23 years old, and I look young. I assume most people who see me on campus think I am an undergrad. I think this is an issue a lot of young people deal with going into student affairs: people assume we are students. And we are, but we are graduate students, on a professional track. And currently I feel like I’m more on the professional side than the student side.

Yet people make assumptions. I was at the OSU bookstore a few weeks ago buying books. My visit coincided with freshmen move in, and the bookstore was packed, yet the line moved very quickly because every student had extra people with them. I was alone and the cashier asked where my own entourage was. I told her I was a grad student, and she said, “Oh, so you’ve been through this before.” And I have, but not on this campus. Here, I am honestly just as lost as the undergrads with their parents. The assumption she made here may be wrong, but it was reasonable and safe. It did no harm to either of us and had no lasting consequences.

While I started talking about other peoples assumptions of me, I’m not innocent in all of this. I’ve been making some assumptions of my own. We all do. But I've also foun some situations are equalizing. At Dixon Rec on the elliptical machine, there is nothing to distinguish me from anyone else. It is an equalizer of sorts. The only things that signify status are outward appearance and particular exercise gear.

Yet assumptions can be dangerous. You never know who is in your vicinity. Two women in my cohort work in conduct. Recently we were at a football game there were students in front of us passing a flask back and forth. While the women work in conduct, and are only responsible after the student is in trouble (and honestly, neither of them actually saw the flask) these students made a call that the student section at the football game was a “safe” place to do this. Yet they had no idea who was behind them. People make assumptions all the time based on appearances. It seems that these assumptions need to be tempered by a little practicality.

Another young woman in CSSA works with sorority women. At the new student picnic she was at the Greek table wearing the same t shirt the sorority women were wearing. And students kept coming up and asking what activities her sorority takes part in, ect. And while she was in a sorority, it wasn’t here at OSU. She is the adviser, not an undergrad. And while that is a reasonable mistake on the part of the students and again causes no harm, it is still an assumption.

This is something I think most of us will deal with in student affairs for years to come. We will teach people older than we are, supervise those who are only months or years younger. This creates confusion for everyone involved. How do we balance the professional and the scholarly? Or balance student affairs professional with the friend?

Students often seem blissfully aware of some of these issues. The fact that I may not be in their radar at all doesn’t matter. While I know this reflection is intended to examine the mid set of today’s students, it somehow feels right to start with me. Where does my presence fit into the mindset of student? I wonder if these assumptions I’ve examined serve to help one make sense of the world. The world would be a truly confusing place if you had no ability to make patterns out of it. The danger is simply in letting assumptions take the place of real knowledge, both for me, and for the undergraduates in this scenario.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Back in the Northwest!

People have been asking me if I intend to keep blogging. And I think the answer is yes. I can't promise quality or frequency. But I enjoy writing, and it seems some of you enjoy (or are forced) to read.

This last month has been a blur. I spent three weeks in Walla Walla. I had a wonderful family reunion. I saw my sister for the first time in a year. I made a quick trip up to Seattle to see what I'm missing this year. I got to see a few friends from high school, but not at frequently or as many of them as I would have liked. I've seen three plays since I blogged last. "Spring Awakening" in DC and "The Taming of the Shrew", and a musical review in Walla Walla. While I will probably write about theatre more in the future (try to stop me!) I think these three have slipped through the cracks.

While it was nice to be home, this was a period of not a little anxiety. When I came home from Washington I basically owned two suitcases full of clothing and a laptop computer. I spent the last 3 weeks accumulating the things a girl would need to live in an apartment by herself. Like a bed. And dishes. And you know, the basics, like a bread maker (my dAd is the king of yard sales).
I know have a very nice assortment of personal belongings. This Monday we loaded up my little ford tempo, my parents SUV and a trailer, and caravaned to Corvallis. MoM and dAd stayed with me until Thursday, when they took off and left me all alone. Although honestly I'm doing just fine. I'm starting to feel like I have an idea of Corvallis, while I remember very little of it from my childhood.

Pictures of my new apartment will follow, I think its pretty cute. Honestly I couldn't have done better long distance. And possibly I couldn't have done better in person either. I started work on Friday, and an orientation for my program coming up at the end of next week.

This is the beginning of a new chapter and the next two years of my life. Honestly though, the title of this blog still applies. I'm still living on a stipend, although it is a larger one, I have more really life responsibilities this year One of the things I've been struggling with over the last 4 weeks, is the legacy of my volunteer year. The people who changed my life, and these whose lives I may have changed, what do I do with that experience? I'm off to grad school but poverty hasn't changed. The people I left behind are still doing the best they can to survive in a city like DC. I don't really need to worry. Samaritan Ministry already has a new intern. And I'm sure she's on her way to being a great case worker. These things are circular, and they were always intending for me to leave. Hoverer for me, it will take a little soul searching to figure out where volunteerism belongs in my life now that I've lost my identity and title as "volunteer." However, I'm glad I'm considering all of this, if I wasn't contemplating the events of the last year, I would be worried. However, for now I don't need answers, the questions are enough.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thoughts on my last day of work

Its lunch time on my last day of work. My housemates have all moved out, and I hop on airplane home tomorrow at 2.

I have a few random and disconnected musings to share today. I have been cleaning out my desk and all of that, but even more I've been getting my space ready for the new intern. Making sure she has all the numbers, blank disks, papers, and fax cover sheets she needs. This is kind of fun project. It makes me thing about what I use, and what is helpful to know. Hopefully she finds my organizational system and some of my notes helpful.

This morning was a bit wild, tonight is a full moon and I honestly think that my have something to do with it. Some of the participants we dealt with this morning were challenging to say the least. A good note to go out on, I guess. Other things of note, yesterday I had my last computer mentoring session. Good luck, and I hope there are now a few more people in the world who know how to check their email without me. Additionally this week I have provided participants with correct spellings for the words "application," "Massachusetts," and "piercing." Not all for the same person or purpose, luckily. Sample conversation: "No, I don't think the word 'stipend' has a 'F' in it." "Are you sure?" "Pretty sure." I also decided this morning that I want my next job to be one where people don't pee with the bathroom door open. Small but important requirement in employment, I think.
I've said goodbye to my roommates of 11 months. We had a lot of fun together, and been there for a lot of highs and lows. As a part of our last retreat, we were asked to tell the members of the volunteer corps board what the most challenging and the most rewarding parts of our jobs are. And I was struck by the difficulty of our jobs. We are not any normal 5 young people sharing a house straight out of college. No one is working at Starbucks. Instead we have jobs where we are a very important part of our agencies. And between the five of us we cover everything from homelessness to child abuse, and delinquent youths. Not easy. Defiantly not like working in the library at school. And while of course I understood this on some level the whole time, I really was hit by the enormity of it just a few weeks ago.

Another odd side effect of moving across the country with no plan to return any time soon is that people keep telling me to "have a good life." I appreciate the sentiment, but that sounds so scary and final. I've been alone in my house for a few days, which is odd and kind of lonely. I'm almost completely packed, which is a good feeling. Tonight after work I'm going out with my supervisor and the two other year long interns and that should be fun. And tomorrow I leave our nations capital. Its been good run. But I can't wait to get home!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Location: 1600 Pensylvaia Avenue

A few weeks ago I was making an event for my tour of the white house on my google calender. When you create an event it asks some pretty standard questions. What? Tour of the White House. When? 7:15 am Wednesday, July 22nd. Then is asked me, Where? And I answered: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For some reason this really gets my funny bone, as it comes off as Google Calender needing to be taught the location of the White House. Which is not the case, but pretty funny.

Also currently there is this commercial playing in rotation on NBC about Jay Leno promoting his talk show changing time slots. It shows a young woman being interviewed on the street. She is asked "Who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" and she doesn't know! Next, she is asked "Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?" and she promptly answerers "Sponge Bob!" Hopefully this is really not that indicative of the state of our nation. And for the record Jay Leno, I know the answer to both of these questions. But there is nothing funny in knowledge I suppose.

Well last wednesday I pulled myself out of bed at the inhumane hour of 6:00 am, a full hour and a half earlier than usual. And I am not a morning person at 7:30, let alone at 6:00. But I popped out of bed with the energy that goes with any special event, and a little nervousness about getting there on time, and finding the visitors entrance. I was not allowed to bring very much with me. Usually I go to work with a pretty good sized purse. Things you can almost always find in my purse include cell phone, i pod, keys, Kleenex, lotion, chap stick, allergy medicine, water bottle, wallet, and whatever book I'm plowing through on the bus. So I'm basically Mary Poppins. This day I was allowed to bring cell phone, keys, wallet, and photo ID. And nothing else. So I took the bus to Farragut with nothing. No purse (which felt really odd) no book, no I Pod, no water, no packed lunch. And it was sort of fun. It felt a little like taking a break from all the things I carry with me, literally and figuratively. I made it to Farragut in good time, but had a little trouble finding the visitors gate, which caused a little anxiety, but I did find it, and didn't miss my tour time. I think I should be sure by now, that if there is the potential for getting lost, I will. Somehow I'm wired with the opposite of a navigational system. But I am getting smarter about asking for help and preparing for the eventuality of being lost and/or confused. One I found the visitors entrance, they had us get in line according to last name, and I got through security pretty quickly. Which is easy when you have only your ID, bus pass, and cell phone in your pocket.

We we touring the east wing. It is a self guided tour, but there are secret service agents(!) in every room to answer questions. I get too shy to ask questions in situations like this. I would love to know more information, but don't really know what to ask, and don't want to ask dumb questions. We got to look at about 9 rooms. Most of them we got to walk through, but about 3 we could only peek into. The rooms themselves are beautifully decorated. They were prepping East Room for an address president Obama was giving later that day and pointed out the long hallway with red carpeting you see on television. And maybe that was the neatest part. Physically standing where Obama would be in just a few hours. Standing where so many presidents, dignitaries, and every day people have stood over the years.

When I studied abroad in England I saw too many castles, palaces, and historic estates to count. By the end of 4 months, all the students in my program have developed what I might call "castle ennui." Everything starts to look and feel the same. Cardiff Castle honestly doesn't feel all that different from Windsor Palace. They are both amazing, but when it comes down to it, all the hundreds of rooms and staircases start to bleed together. I think I feel that way about the White House. It is a beautiful piece of architecture, and lovingly decorated and preserved. We can be proud of the majesty of the White House. But the thing that sticks with me from my time in all the historic places in Britain, is how it felt to stand on Henry VII's tombstone, or to be in the room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James I. Not what that room was physically decorated with. And I think thats what I will take from this visit. For 30 minutes of my life, I was inside one of America's most treasured piece of property. And maybe during those 30 minutes, Barack Obama was too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

15 Days!

As the title of this post suggests, my days left in our nations capital are numbered. I work right up until August 4th, and on August 5th, I hop on a plane home to Walla Walla. Where I will land smack in the middle of a family reunion. Big sister Carolyn will beat me home by a week and I'm excited to spend most of August in Walla Walla before I move to Corvallis in the beginning of September. It's wonderful to have the next step all mapped out, and I'm getting pretty excited about being closer to home and starting grad school.

I'm feeling a little antsy to get home, but for now I'm planning to relax and enjoy my last little bit of time here. I've been trying to make a list of things to do before I leave DC, however I'm feeling a little uninspired. However, tomorrow morning I get to go on a tour of the White House with my coworkers, which seems like a huge thing to cross off the list. Next week I am going to see a play at the Kennedy Center. I have a few friends to see again, housemates and coworkers to say goodbye to and a farewell from Westmoreland Church.

I recently asked a woman who is a native Washintonian what things should be on my list before I go. She said (jokingly) "Lord and Taylors?" But this encapsulate my feelings pretty neatly. I feel like I've seen a lot of DC in 11 months, and honesty its become a little commonplace to me. Its been my home, I don't think its odd to go by 20 embassies on the bus in the evening. However, before I go, I need to switch briefly back into tourist mode. I do have a few museums I want to repeat visit and I am going to the White House, but thats about as far as my list goes.
Any thoughts on of a few can't miss DC things before my time runs out?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

And the Rain it Raineth Every Day

So I've been thinking recently about the content of my blog. I've been writing basically only about theatre, which wasn't really my intent. But real life is tricky. Most of my job is confidential, and the ins and outs of my volunteer house seem too private and its hard to figure out what to say. But I'm quickly approaching the end of my volunteer year and I do have some thoughts on that coming up. I've decided anyway, that I'm not forcing anyone to read my blog (umm ok I might be...) But if you are reading this, you probably are either interested in what I've been saying about the dc theatre scene, or you like me a whole lot, or have the same last name as I do. So here comes another (very long, very in depth) theatre post.

I saw King Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre Company a few weeks ago and it took me a few days to recover from the shock of it. I know King Lear pretty well, I've read it 4 separate times and now have seen it on stage twice. On Monday before seeing this production I was making jokes because the theatre placed this warning on it: "Recommended for mature audiences. King Lear will feature graphic violence, sexuality and nudity." And honestly I thought that was pretty great. At UPS, when our productions featured certain things we had to put warning signs in the hallway for the audience. This applied to stuff like smoking, gunshots, or nudity. In fact, it was a running joke during my thesis play that we wanted to push the limits and have as many warning signs as possible. We did pretty well on that account.

Well for this productions warning signs would have been exceptional. There were too many gunshots to count, 3 entirely naked actors, several characters were graphically smothered to death, smoke, fog, there was even a CAR driven on stage. I'm not sure that last one needs a warning, but just to give you an idea of the spirit of the production. And I was honestly not ready for the levels of brutality this production accomplished. This production is not for the weak hearted, and I'm going to discuss some of the very graphic things it explored. Before I move on I have to say that all the people I went with loved this production. They really enjoyed it, and my reaction is by far the most critical I've encountered.

This production seemed to be very interesting in finding and exploring the moral ambiguities of the characters. Almost no one escaped unscathed. Generally King Lear holds a host of unsavory characters, notably Goneril and Regan, Cornwall, and the villain of the piece, Edmund. And these four nasty characters are enough to to rip the whole fabric of their world apart. This production took it a step further. The characters who are usually sympathetic and noble, the ones who carry the show and act as a moral center for the audience to follow, were all were destroyed by this production. For instance Kent, Lear's loyal servant, the voice of reason, threatened to brutally sodomize Goneril's servant Oswald. Here, Oswald was a nasty piece of work, but still the noble Kent lost his nobility in this threat. Albany, usually the sole voice of reason in the sisters world, rapes his wife. Even Edgar, usually the most noble character, still first emerges as a flamboyant, foolish drunk.

Somehow amidst all this debauchery, Gloucester emerges as the long sympathetic figure, with Edgar, his son also moving past his initial drunken foolishness and finally approaching the heroic space he usually holds. Yet it is this Gloucester, who is particularly nasty about Edmund's illegitimacy in his first appearance. who becomes the hero of the play. And what a tragic hero he is, giving his eyes and his life for Lear.

While this is an enormously long play, this production pushed over 3 hours and very little was cut. However, the last act was sliced and diced and for content it seems, not time. This production, obsessed with pulling the evil out of every good character, and the good out of the evil, cuts Edmund's attempt at atonement at the end. In the traditional script, Edmund and Edgar have a sword fight and Edmund is mortally wounded by Edgar. When Edmund realizes that he is dying and that it in fact is his brother who killed him, he tells Edgar he has ordered Lear and Cordelia's executions and Edgar rushes off to stop it. This is completely absent. Instead, Edgar pulls out a gun and blows Edgar away killing all dialog of the scene and obliterating Edgar's moment of change. This puzzles me. Why would this production, so interested in exploring the darkness and ambiguity of the human soul, remove the one good deed Edmund does? Even at best it is a sorry attempt to save Lear and Cordelia. It truly is a classic example of too little too late. Even if he did save them, it would not be enough to atone for all of his horrific misdeeds. And this is a particularly nasty Edmund, who not 30 minutes earlier strangles Cornwall with his tie, another bit of script alteration that bothered me.

To take this even further, in this production Goneril and Regan die after Edmund, not before. And not only this but Goneril strangles her sister on stage over Edmund's lifeless body, instead of off stage. By the time Goneril finished smothering her sister and shot herself, I was ready for the play to be over. But they were just warming up for the most brutal moment yet: Lear stumbled onstage carrying the naked, beaten, and obviously violated body of Cordelia. I was not expecting this and it shocked me. But maybe not in the way they intended.

As I mentioned I've seen King Lear on stage before. I saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production with Ian McKellen as King Lear. While that production was by no means puppies and kittens, in fact it was effectively brutal, its violence didn't approach this level at all. And I'm really at a loss. I didn't hate this production. The acting was good, the design was interesting, there were some phenomenal stage pictures and moments, but I really cannot move past the brutality of it. I'm not sure what the place of all the violence is supposed to be. Who is the hero in this tale, where all the characters are despicable? The last lines of the play are usually spoken by Goneril's sweet and misused husband. However, the Albany of this play was such a beast that his lines had to be given away to Edgar, who is the only good charter possibly in the whole production. And certainly he is the only one left standing, or more accurately oddly delivering the final lines crawling across the stage. I'm just left really not sure that I like this interpretation of King Lear, although it was definitely provoking.

Is this play a product of the times? Its set in 1990's in the Balkans. It feels achingly modern and its commentary on war is clear. Is it a product of the focus of the last few years on graphic and violent TV shows and movies and the crowd of anti heroes and despicable protagonists who populate them? Called into existence because of "The Shield", and "Dexter" most importantly "The Sopranos?" Quite possibly. But is this the way King Lear is intended? Or has it mutated into something different entirely? I'm left unsure, and slightly unhappy.

One of my college professors calls King Lear the best play in the English language. And maybe my problem comes down to this : the language was lost in the shuffle of all this epic violence and hatred. The actor who seems to speak the verse best was the villain, Edmund, who delivered his lines clearly and thrillingly in between stabbing, shooting, strangling, and seducing everyone in sight. The other actors didn't always seem to 100% understand their lines in a way that they communicated to the audience. I'm not sure what message that sends. The stage picture at the end, heaps of garbage and smashed up cars and dead characters, including a dead Cordelia completely naked on a table took away the power of Kent's last lines.

Or maybe my problem is that this entire production is what one of my professors would call "phenomenologically hot." Everything was distracting, rather than enlightening. Things that are phenomenologically hot on stage include babies, animals, water, fire, even actors with a certain type of charisma. (Maybe my UPS theatre kids can help explain this concept if they want) And the audience instinctively spends the time wondering if will the baby will cry, the animal will bite (or pee), or if the whole stage might go up in flames. That's how I ultimately feel about this production. Get the lion trainer handy and have plenty of fire extinguishers back stage. Figuratively of course.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seasons of Love

Recently I got to do something pretty spectacular. I got to see the official touring cast of the musical RENT. Which included the original Mark and the original Roger, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, who first started playing these roles 13 years ago as young unproven actors on Broadway.

I have never seen RENT on stage before. I was aware of it as a musical, but had never heard of seen it before the film came out a few years back. I saw the movie three times in one weekend when it was the campus film and fell in love. I, like so many people, was captivated by this musical, by the music, and the story, the energy and the feeling of it. I bought the movie, got the Broadway soundtrack, and know the music very well. Yet I'd never done the crucial thing, I'd never seen it on stage. Simply because I've never had the chance, until now.

And when I was offered the chance to go see it way back in February, I jumped at it. I wrote a check to a friend and was the proud owner of a ticket. However, I didn't realize until about a month ago that Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp were going to be in it. Anyone who has seen the film has heard their amazing voices (MoM, FYI, you have seen the film). Because 90% of the original Broadway cast was in the film, and these are the only two recordings of RENT I've ever heard, I've literally never heard anyone else sing these two parts. Isn't that sort of spectacular? And my excitement was amazing. These actors make the musical for me.

I'm sure at some point I will see RENT again with a totally different cast. I may even be lucky enough so see these actors in other roles on stage on person. Or maybe even in these roles again. I was thinking last night about all the famous people I've seen on stage. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Daniel Radcliff, 60 percent of the rest of the Harry Potter cast, and I'm probably forgetting someone really cool or famous. Yet getting to see these actors in the roles I know and loved them for, that is something really special. They inhabit this play in a way that I'm not sure any other actors ever can or will. And because of them, this production.

RENT premiered on Broadway over 13 years ago. And it became a sensation. Something about the intertwined stories of these 7 characters speaks to people. RENT tackles a broad variety of topics, or alternately, a specific thing. It tells the story of young people dealing with AIDS, drug addiction, suicide, homosexuality, even homelessness. Because of its frank, loving, supportive treatment of these things RENT became a symbol for the disenfranchised, the lonely. It seems to be about hope and yes, love. Oh man, maybe I am fixated on love and its place in theatre. Which is a good thing to focus on, if I have to pick, I guess.

Getting to see it was a perfect fleeting few hours of theatre. I wanted to drag my feet and make it go on forever. I always feel that way when watching a particularly good play; I don't ever want the moment to end. But it did, of course. However, even a few weeks later I'm still pretty happy about it. I told my friend Julia, who is getting ready to see the same production in Seattle soon, that seeing it was a bit anticlimactic for me. She was disappointed to know I felt that way. I'm not sure thats exactly right. I just wonder if sometimes, its the whole entire theatrical experience that makes a show. The build up, the let down, all of it, more than the actual two and a half hours of theatre that create a show.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Epic Memorial Day Weekend

Sorry this post was a long time coming! But here it goes. The day after Garrison Keillor I went on a 22 hour epic adventure with my new friends. It was Keri's birthday, and she wanted make it count. And it did.

My day started at 12 when I got picked up from the metro. We went to a park in Laurel Maryland and had a picnic lunch, my second in two days. I brought more of my great pasta salad and we had a nice time and a ton of food.

From there, we hopped in the car and drove the Boordy Vineyard, ( which is the oldest vineyard in the state of Maryland. We got to go on a tour, and our lovely tour guide, Pat, also led the wine tasting for half of our group. Up until now my entire wine tasting experience has been in Walla Walla, where we have a million and a half wineries (140? Is that the current count?) but they are mostly small boutique wineries, however they are producing fantastic wine.

Somehow its become a thing in my family that I like white wine more than red, but the Walla Walla valley is best for red. So on my family wine tasting last summer, I think I was forced to try every bottle of white Walla Walla produces. And now I think my taste is actually moving towards those rich, flavorful reds. So the opposite was true here, I loved the white wines, but was disappointed in the reds, all except for their reserve red, that I payed an extra dollar to taste. It was worth it.

After the winery we went out to dinner and then the main even. The drive in. It was outside of Baltimore and they were showing four movies. From dusk to dawn. And they literally played movies from last light to first light. In order the movies were Coraline, Star Trek, Obsessed, and Knowing. The only one of those I wanted to see was Star Trek and I wanted to see it a lot, and was previously unable to get anyone to go with me. But I loved Star Trek as a kid, (it was the only thing I ever remember Nick and I agreeing on to watch together) and I loved this movie. It was a lot of fun. I don't see movies very often anymore, and I paid 8 dollars to see 4, which is amazing. Or as I like to think of it, I paid 8 to see Start Trek and got 3 free. I found Coraline very creepy, and not necessarily in a good way, which is interesting because its animated and I think its for KIDS. I was really disturbed by it. Obsessed was ridiculous and mostly fun. It was good to be a the drive in where you can yell at the screen. It was good that Knowing was last, as the end of it made absolutely no sense, and the lighter it go the less we could see it anyway. By the time Knowing was over, it was almost 6 am and the first movie started at about 8 pm. Woah.

I was dropped off at my front door at about 7 am. I promptly fell asleep and woke up in the early afternoon. At about 5 pm, when I was considering another nap, I got invited to go the Memorial Day concert on the lawn, with my housemates Deanna's visiting mother and grandmother. We brought sandwiches, and they had a blanket and I took a very brief nap there waiting for the concert to begin.

This concert was actually sort of star packed, although the quality and reputation of the "celebrities" varied greatly. We had Laurence Fishburne, who is currently on CSI, Joe Mantegna who is on the show Criminal Minds (also on CBS), we had Katie Holmes (with Tom Cruise sitting in the front row!) preforming a moving piece with Broadway actress Diane Wiest. We had former American Idol (runner up?) Katherine McPhee, singing my favorite song from West Side Story, "Somewhere." Most excitingly for me was Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, my favorite musical, singing "Bring Him Home." That was the highlight for me. While he is getting older, he still has a wonderful voice. I wasn't even aware he was a part of the concert until they announced him and I was beyond thrilled to get to hear him sign in person, especially such an appropriate and emotional song.

And on Monday we had a memorial day grill out in our back yard with Deanna's family, a very nice end to a busy 3 day weekend.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Prairie Home Companion

On Friday night right after work, I trekked out to the Wolf Trap Theatre to see Garrison Keillor preform "A Prairie Home Companion." My friend Brian again organized this trip, and I do have to admit I would see much less theatre if I didn't have Brian organizing things. Also I have to admit, I haven't listened to "A Prairie Home Companion more than a dozen times ever. NPR is my entertainment of choice while I make jewelry in my dAd's shop. And then it gets interrupted for the belt sander, or the vacuum or any other loud noise one of us might make. But I know my dAd has a man crush on Garrison Keillor and I am the proud owner of a "POEM: Professional Organization of English Majors" t shirt after last Christmas. So I felt a need to represent the fam and go see Garrison Keillor in person. Carolyn says I failed by not wearing my POEM shirt to the concert, but to be fair, I did go straight from work.

We had tickets on the lawn, which means that we got to bring in any food or drink (even booze!) that we wanted. Apparently the only line is a KEG. I'd love to see the crowd that came for Prairie Home Companion bring a keg, actually. While we didn't try our luck on that, we did bring a cube of sangria, which was sufficient. I made pasta salad, for the first time ever, and it turned out quite delicious, although I made a ton of it and did just eat the last of it tonight, 4 days later. I was glad we had lawn seats, we had blankets and got to continue snacking on our lovely picnic well into the show itself.

While I knew Garrison Keillor was funny and entertaining, the show in person was amazing. Radio shows are a lost art. Even if we listen to them, we don't take the time to sit down and just listen, doing nothing else. Seeing it live forces you to do just that: listen. I laughed until I cried and just cried also, the show covered a lot of emotional ground. But also I watched. The actors acted with their faces and bodies. There was a set, and they even flew props in and out. It was well worth watching, simply looking at the performers.

The show covers a lot of ground, from serious to funny. New material, fantastic musical guests and visits to some of my favorites from the files of "A Prairie Home Companion", like Guy Nior: detective. I really enjoyed the Wolf Trap theatre itself. Garrison Keillor even got the audience to howl like wolves before intermission, not often you get to see (hear?) that. It was an excellent evening of food, friends, and entertainment.

For those of you keeping track(MoM), this was theatrical event 5 out of 6. That turned itself into 7 with the memorial day concert on Sunday. Stay turned for more theatrical rambling.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Love or Cruelty: Design for Living

Last Monday my housemate Rachel and I received a pair of last minute tickets to the opening of “Design for Living” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I had gone to two of their fantastic productions so far, “Twelfth Night” (which I blogged about) and “Ion” (which I loved, but didn’t write about). So while I knew absolutely nothing about this play or Noel Coward, the playwright, I went in with very high expectations.

The first moments of “Design for Living” had me thinking that it was going to be a very different play than what it turned out to be. The play follows three young "bohemians" Otto, Leo, and Gilda in the 1930's. The play opens with the young woman, Gilda living with Otto, but uninterested in marriage and having just slept with Leo, the third side of the love triangle. In the first 30 minutes of the play, I made a very wrong assumption. After a huge, honest, and enormously painful fight, Otto deserts Gilda spectacularly angry. And I thought it was going to continue to be a play about evisceration; characters ripping each others hearts out of their chests for sport.

I thought the protagonists were going to engage in a three way precursor to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof." In that play, a married couple, George and Martha, spend a whole (progressively drunker and drunker) evening ripping out each others internal organs, again figuratively. Although maybe something like zombies would make me like that play better, some literal evisceration. Unlike George and Martha, the lovers in "Design for Living" are not trying to destroy each other. The vitriol at the end of the first act never returns. Instead of trying to rip each others hearts out, they spend the rest of the play (and years of their lives) trying to rip down societal constructs and rebuild their lives in their own image. So while they may hurt each other, its never out of hatred, or callousness, but out of an honest desire to make it all work.

Each of the three acts tries another pairing. We begin with Gilda and Otto as a couple, move to Gilda and Leo, and finally to Leo and Otto. Each couple is happy together, yet none of these pairs quite work. And in the final scene, Leo and Otto come to reclaim Gilda, and enter in the final combination, all three of them. The play ends on this suggestion, but there is no act of the play devoted to it. And I guess I was left to feel that meant the final combination, the three of them, would work. Because nothing before it has and what is present here, is love. I never doubted that all three loved each other, and that through that love they could find happiness.

I didn't know anything about Noel Coward or this play before I saw it, so I had to read the program and do a little internet research to find some back ground. Noel Coward was a British playwright, however the content of “Design for Living” is very progressive, so much so that Coward premiered “Design for Living” in New York, not in London, where it would not have made it past the British censors. Although in the 80 intervening years, I think this has reversed itself, with productions in London now more progressive than those in the states. But in the 30’s Coward was actually in danger of being arrested for the content of this play. Which is interesting, considering that “Design for Living” still feels progressive now. And possibly this is why I’m so interested in it. How have we come so far, and not very far at all? I’m sure there were some people in the audience shocked by the earnest depiction of homosexuality, and love and just sexuality in general. However, I would need to get my hands on the script itself to be able to tell how much of progressive nature of this production is text based, and how much is stage direction, and interpretation. I think that this production clearly did pushed the envelope in those regards much more than it would have 80 years ago.

As I've sort of mentioned, the play follows a three act structure. Each act takes place in a different city. We begin in Paris in Otto and Gilda's apartment, take up two years later in London in Leo and Gilda's home, and end another two years later in New York with Gilda and her husband. The structure is very clever. The repetition of the themes is beautiful, not repetitive. Each time I thought I knew what was coming next, but I was never quite correct. This mix of predictability and surprise makes the play always interesting. I struggle to write about this, without giving the entire plot away, which I've sort of done anyway.

As the play takes place in three different cities, there were actually three totally different sets, one for each act and apartment. This meant that the show has two intermissions for set changes, and they actually closed the curtain to do this, something I almost never see in professional theatre. The sets were so detailed and beautiful that the third set actually got a round of applause, again something I've never seen. The lead actress even got a round of applause at her entrance in a very spectacular third act evening gown. While this was opening night and the sets and costumes were spectacular, I think this applause was more about the audience being completely in love with and invested in the story.

While I haven't talked about the humor at all, this production was hysterically funny. I think Noel Coward is primarily famous for writing comedies, although I think this play is more a very, very funny drama. The dialogue is terribly witty, and the audience is expected to keep up, with frequent call backs and pay offs to previous jokes. The supporting cast did an excellent job with a number of characters including a brilliantly funny maid, who would have stolen the show if the leads were not so darn mesmerizing. The play also included the best drunken sequence I've ever seen onstage, and some wonderfully intoxicated acting. Acting drunk onstage often goes wrong or off base or overboard, but the two leading men accomplished this perfectly. This scene also culminated in a kiss between the two men that has been building for the whole first two hours of the play and the tension was built perfectly in the 20 minute drunken scene. This moment ends the second act and sets up a final act that I hardly wait 10 minutes to see.

By the end of the play I was profoundly relived that I had been so wrong about it in the beginning. There was nothing bitter or mean spirited about this play. Instead it became a joyful and funny exploration about the relationships between people and the nature of art, and love. As I talked about in my last blog entry, I love relationship driven plays. The characters love for each other is what keeps me interested. The play ends on a slightly ambiguous, but hopeful note, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Oh and because it was opening night and opening night was fancy we got to get all dressed up. We also got to got a complimentary drinks things at a nearby swanky bar. Between the free tickets and the free wine, I feel like a real theatre critic. Does this mean I have to start being mean? And critical?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not a Love Story?

A few weeks ago, a member of the Westmoreland board had one extra ticket to Tom Stoppard's play Rock'n'Roll. He extended an invitation of all of us in the house, but because the performance fell on a night we were already planning to have a BBQ, I was the only one in the house interested in abandoning ship mid BBQ and going to the play.

Somehow, the timing of it combined with the fact that I'd been asking people to go to another Stoppard play, Arcadia, had my housemate Noah reasonably confused. A few days before I went to see it, Noah finally figured out that the play in question was indeed Rock'n'Roll and told me he'd seen it in London (the world premier run I think). So I asked if he liked it, and if he thought I'd enjoy it and he said, "I'm not sure you'll like it. Its not a love story." WHAT?!? To which I got rather riled up and informed him that I was a theatre major and do indeed have appreciation for things that are not "love stories." To Noah's credit, when given a chance to amend his rather offensive statement, this is what he said: "Rock'n'Roll is about communism and rock and roll music, neither of which you're really that interested in." Which was much more acceptable, also, true and true. I don't have any really strong opinions about rock and roll. I like it, but no strong emotions. And communism is something I'm clearly aware of but have never really studied or researched extensively.

So imagine my surprise when I was sitting in the Studio Theatre on Saturday night waiting for the play to begin and reading the dramaturg's notes and found this: "Despite a plot spanning decades and political movements, Rock'n'Roll is ultimately a love story." HAH. I am not making that up. Take that, Noah!

No, but really I tell this story because I think the dramaturg is right. Rock'n'Roll is an epic story bounding back and forth between Prague and Oxford and chronologically spanning 20 years. It is epic, has tons of characters a lot of scope. But ultimately it comes down to relationships, and love. Lots of different kinds of love, love between parents and children, husbands and wives, unrequited love, love between friends. Its the relationships between the characters that keep the play from being an oral dissertation on the history of communism, and turns it into a really thoughtful exploration of how standing up for your ideals shapes the path of your life.

From a strictly production standpoint, this production was fantastic. It was done in the Studio Theatre's smallest space which was somehow converted into theatre in the round. Apparently its usually a regular theatre, but since I've never been in that space before, I'm not really sure how. The stage had tracks that accommodated some very quick set changes, as they were able to send a large dining room table in and out on the tracks, among other things. The floor itself was inset with lights to look like expansive flooring a fancy hotel or art gallery might have. But during the blackouts a dull glow from the floor guided the actors and the scene changes. And it was so subtly done that it took me most of the play to realize that was part of the reason the changes were so expeditious. There were also a bewildering number of lights hanging from an unmasked theatre ceiling. But again they were used fantastically and the light was always organic and called for.

While Arcadia and Rock'n'Roll are being produced by two separate theaters in DC, they are an excellent study in opposites. Its like Tom Stoppard sat down and said, "I'm going to write a new play, and I'm going to do everything the exact OPPOSITE of Arcadia. Brilliant." Except it is brilliant. Every character's role in Arcadia is carefully laid out, with hardly a small or insignificant role to be found, and I as I discussed, some vary major players who never appear onstage. Rock'n'Roll is the opposite. The cast is HUGE and people come on for single scenes. One actor appears (memorably) for only about 1 minute of the entire play. Others have single scenes and few lines. However, it feels organic rather than wasteful or excessive.

Alternately, both plays have a central conceit. Arcadia is focused on the interconnectedness of the past and present and mathematics, and love. Rock'n'Roll is about communism and, yes, love. And when it comes right down to it, the relationships, the way the characters affect each others lives, that's what captivates me.

A Six Play May (say that three times fast)

Somehow a number of things have converged on me recently and its resulted in me going to see six theatrical events in the month of May alone. And this makes me totally happy. It also threatens to turn my blog entirely into a theatre review site. For now I'm going to give into that urge and continue to write about the shows I've seen. Because they've been amazing and more than worth my time to explore a little further.

The night after I saw "Arcadia" I went to see Richard Wright's "Native Son." A volunteer from Samaritan Ministry was in charge of props, so we got a group of staff together to go out to dinner and go see this play.

I had some trouble with this play. Not because it was a bad production, or because I didn't like it. It is very serious and I found the subject matter difficult. It brings up some very deep questions about race in our country. I think that my problem is that it hits a little too close to home. Not to my home, but to the home (or lack thereof) of my program participants. Right now, I'm working with people who have some very serious issues in their lives. And while I do my best, I don't have any magic tools and I can't make problems go away.

Native Son is the story of a young black man living in 1930's Chicago. He is the head of his family and has moved towards criminal activity to make the ends meet. His whole family is just one step away from starvation and homelessness. He gets a job with an affluent white family that seems to be a step in a better direction but it all goes wrong in the worst way possible in under 24 hours.

All of this was a little too much for me. I couldn't really enjoy it, even though when I take the pieces apart, the acting was good, the staging was good. It was in a black box theatre and it was in the round, which I completely love. The stage was almost totally empty and prop pieces were used effectively. However, I really couldn't get over the bleakness of it. The protagonist is not a sympathetic character. In fact, a sympathetic character is hard to find, which is completely intentional but not comfortable. So while I understand the reasons for this, I would have enjoyed this play much more last year from my comfortable college cocoon, far away form the reality of the lives I now interact with every morning.

After seeing this play, we discussed it at our staff meeting. Taking the time to break it down and discuss the themes and characters helped me some. However, connecting it even more directly to our program participants didn't help ease my unfeeling of discomfort. What is comes down to for me it that this play was very thought provoking and a little disturbing, which was probably Richard Wright's goal in the first place.

"Native Son" was play number 2 out of 6. Coming up in future blog entries, I have thoughts on a second Tom Stoppard play, "Rock and Roll", and a very last minute dash to go see "Design for Living." This Friday, I get to see Garrison Keillor doing "A Prairie Home Companion" and next Wednesday I see the official touring cast of "RENT". I'm beyond excited.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Et in Arcadia Ego"

Last week I saw the Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. I love this play. I've seen it before, and read it before. It was the main stage play at UPS when I was abroad and I always felt like I missed out on not getting to see it, or be involved with it.

So when I saw way back in the fall that it was a part of Folger's season I knew I had to go. I was even willing to go by myself. But I got my housemate, Rachel, and my coworker and partner in crime, Jalaine, to come with me. Because I orchestrated the trip, I felt a certain pressure for them to enjoy the play. I mean, clearly it wouldn't be my fault if the production wasn't good, or if they didn't enjoy it. But I found myself watching them a little during the first few scenes. Quickly it was clear they were both really enjoying it, so I could relax.

The Folger Theatre calls this part of their grounds "the Elizabethan Theatre," but I feel that its really a reconstruction of Shakespeare's theatre, the Globe. Our (very inexpensive) seats were on the balcony on the right side. At times I had to lean either forward or backward to see well, and there were a few times the action happened almost under us, but otherwise the view was very good. Our tickets were also very reasonably prices, and I should mention, that the play is still in previews. However, I saw very little that needs to improve, other than occasional and very slight stumbling over lines. But that can happen at any point really.

I think Arcadia is a fascinating show. First of all I really enjoy Tom Stoppard as a playwright. He gets dialog in a way all his own. His plays are incredibly pithy, wordy and intellectual. Yet he straddles the right side of pretentiousness through the warm and well developed characters who deliver his incredible dialog.

Arcadia is an amazing piece of theatre. It takes place in a beautiful English house, centered around the different generations of the same family, in 1809 and 1811, and in present time. Scenes alternate back and forth expeditiously and easily through the centuries. It is both a modern and a period play, which is not an easy tack. In fact, I cannot think of any other play that does that. This culminates in the most mind blowing and amazing theatrical trick ever. In the last scene the past and present are on stage simultaneously. This is accomplished through very clever staging, while both scenes unfold they are not aware of the others presence, like you you reach in and lift one scene out and the action would continue.

This works so well because it is not a trick. It is the play. The characters in the present become obsessed with discovering a particular event in the past. They grope blindly (but intelligently) toward the truth. And last night the brilliance of the play struck me when characters in the present kept exclaiming "I wasn't there." They can't know exactly what happened in the past, as much as they try. They rely on letters, and game books and logs of the garden to discover the past. However, we the audience ARE there. We get to see both. We know exactly what happens in past and get to feel like a reader of a mystery novel where we already know the ending. However, that analogy isn't completely apt. Its more like a puzzle where the audience hold some of the pieces separate. The characters spend the play looking for the answers and we get to find them just a few steps ahead.

This play is a great ensemble piece. There are a quite a few actors, but even more interestingly there are quite a few characters that are much discussed but never seen on stage. The husband in the past, the mother in the present and Lord Byron, are conspicuously absent from the actual stage to name a few. I think that this was a very interesting ad good decision. Especially a character like Lord Byron actually benefits from being larger than life, unable to grace us with his presence. It keeps him from taking over the play, although he is kept quite busy off stage.

To wrap this up, I have to say that I think that am a little notorious for being a overly gentle theater critic. In my theatre classes, I always had a kind word for every script I read, and every play we saw. Yet its not that I'm undiscerning, I'm just willing to let the small things go completely and enjoy the big picture. However, this play seems to have no small things. I enjoyed every second of it. The ending of Arcadia is one of my all time favorite theatrical moments. The play ends with two waltzes, one in the past and one in the present and ends the play with the perfect mix of melancholy and hope. That perfect feeling of the last moments of the play(I cried) stayed with me on my way home and lingered for the next few days. Which I think ultimately is what good theater does, it stays with you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Hey, want to meet me in Bangladesh"?

On Saturday, I got a voice mail from my housemates that went like this, "Hey, so there is an Embassy open house today. Want to meet us in Bangladesh?" And clearly thats not the kind of offer you can turn down. So I hopped on a bus, went to Van Ness and arrived at the Bangladesh Embassy.

Apparently the embassy open houses are a big deal. They are ofen very crowded and lot so people turn out. Well we seemed to time it well, I didn't have to stand in line at all. My housemates were at the Bangladesh Embassy when I arrived. At the door, I got to shake hands with the Ambassador from Bangladesh, which is both random and very cool. Then I made it inside and found my housemates Rachel and Deanna, who had just got in line to get henna done on their hands. Well, I've never had henna before, and I thought, sure why not?

For those of you who don't know what henna is, it a a form of temporary body art. It is applied by a paste that is left to dry on the skin. When washed off it leaves a reddish brown "tattoo," that stays from days to apparently weeks. We had the option of having henna painted on the back of our hands. My design also goes down the back of my middle finger. The woman who applied it was very quick. We stood in line for about 15 minutes for about a minute of actual henna application. And then we had to move very carefully around the crowded embassy to avoid getting henna on anyone (or ourselves!) while it set.

However, while this was quite a bit of fun on Saturday afternoon, the moral of this story is that out of the three of us, none of us considered how a henna tattoo was going to go over with the populations we serve at work.

By Sunday night, with my tattoo showing no signs of fading, I broke out the camera and Deanna and I did the self picture thing. It was surprisingly difficult to take a picture of the back of your own right hand. And even harder to take a picture of the back of two right hands. I've included our adventures in picture taking.

So maybe I can rule out "hand model" as a possible career.

Its now Thursday, and while my henna has faded, it is still very visible. We have all gotten some great reactions. Rachel gives presentations for children, and they especially have trouble understanding, and they are very concerned when about her "tattoo" and whether its ok for her to even have a tattoo. My participants and Deanna's clients have also had some great reactions. One of my particularly boisterous participants is convinced that I am marrying an Indian man, as henna is often a part of wedding rituals. I have to admit I did not totally discourage that mistake belief, as #1, my personal life is not his business and #2, I found it really amusing. and just today, someone asked if I had a cooking accident! I did set one straight and explained it wasn't a burn.

All together, henna was a fun little adventure, but maybe I'll avoid my right hand if I get a second opportunity.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mental Illness and the Cuckoo's Nest

I went to see "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" last week at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda. This is the same theatre I saw "Eurydice" at, because of that, I had high hopes for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." And I was not disappointed.

However, the timing on this play may not have been the greatest. Or it was excellent timing, depending on your viewpoint. Before seeing "Cukoo's Nest," I knew almost nothing about it. I'd never read Ken Kessey's novel or seen the movie, which is apparently very good.

So it wasn't until I literally was seated 10 minutes before curtain taht I realized "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest" takes place in a mental institution. And as fate has it, I had spent the majority of my morning trying to get a program participant in touch with mental health services. I honestly think that mental health is the hardest part of my job. I clearly have no background or training in dealing with or diagnosing it. However I am an intuitive person, and I have leaned some of the social cues that tell a person may not be mentally stable. Also, sometimes its very very clear. Such as any day when I get to work at 8:45 and a participant is standing on the porch talking to themselves, mental illness is a pretty easy guess.

So I sat there in the audience, by myself waiting for my friend, and thought, well shoooot. I stared at the set. It was simultaneously very simple and very detailed and very clearly a ward in a mental institution. And I wondered if I was going to be able to handle this, on this of all days. It was just a little close to home.

But my friend arrived with seconds to spare and the lights went out and I was thrust into the world of the play, like any good little theatre major. And it occurs to me that being in the middle of a theatrical experience is the ideal. "All the world's a stage..." and all that. Anything else is sort of just holding place. So as soon as the play started, I was fine.

This production was funny, heartfelt, and ultimately heartbreaking. Because of my lack of knowledge of the plot, I was surprised several times by some twists and turns of the plot. The whole production took place in a single location, in the ward of the institution. This is mostly a blessing I think. It means that a set designer can really go all out because nothing has to move or change. I think unit sets open up a lot of opportunities. And this set didn't break my rule about having a fancy set and not utilizing it. The set was used perfectly.

I think that I came into this play not expecting such a touching story. The characters are all well fleshed out, and there was not a weak actor in the bunch. Not one of the actors playing the patients was just going for laughs, which could have been a temptation for a lesser production. Instead, they had developed deep thoughtful characters whose character quirks felt like a part of their real life experiences and illness. Often characters in the background were in danger of stealing the show, but in a good, balanced way. The characters in this story are not black and white; there is no clear villain. Horrible things happen, but does anyone really mean to do them? The realism throughout was bleak and startling.

During and after watching this play I got a little worked up about the way we used to treat mental illness in this country and the way we do now. From what I understand about this which is not extensive, is that in the 1960's the Community Mental Heath Act was passed which resulted in deinstitutionalization, which was a factor in the biggest numbers of homelessness that our nation had ever seen. This is something we are still feeling the repercussions of now. Now in Washigton DC, there are a number of places that serve those with mental illness, but getting those who need these services connected is an unbelievable problem.

This leads me back to where I was the morning before I saw this play. I convinced the program participant I was working with to call the Access Help line and get an intake appointment. The soonest he could get in was two weeks. Now I haven't seen him in almost a week, and I don't think he's going to make his appointment tomorrow. But I'm not giving up. I won the initial round. I got him to make the call, to trust me, and to try getting connected. Maybe he'll come back next week or next month and try again. Maybe he'll remember us and his positive experience and come again in 5 months. Who knows? And at this point I did what I can so for him.

I'm glad that this play was performed. I don't always believe that theatre has to be timely or topical in order to be important. Often I get annoyed by this view of theatre. However, I do think that "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" had a lot to say that is applicable to what is happening in our country right now.