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Spoiler alert: I will be referencing how-the-movie-ends types of things in this post.

So the new movie 500 Days of Summer seems to be all over the place—all my friends have gone to or are going to see it. The “this is not a love story” tag line is intriguing. If it’s about a boy meeting a girl, and it’s specifically not a love story, then what is it? This past weekend, I went with a friend to find out the answer.

I have to say that, while the film was entertaining, I was disappointed. First, things I appreciated: They don’t get together in the end. It wasn’t a typical “happy ending,” and that felt more realistic than the typical romantic comedy Hollywood puts out. Also, counter to the usual gender stereotypes, the woman was not interested in a long-term, serious relationship, and she was honest and forthright about that with the man (and she wasn’t portrayed as a “slut”), and it was the guy that was looking for the full-blown romantic ideal of “the one.” The two main characters had charm. And it has a great soundtrack.

So, about the things I didn’t appreciate. What disappointed me was the use of tired, not particularly funny “jokes” that didn’t add anything to the film except reinforcing stereotypes. Cringe-worthy and alienating. When Tom has a huddle with his friends about his romantic situation, and says they don’t really need labels for their relationship, what are his friends’ responses? “You’re so gay.” Or maybe it was “that’s gay,” as in “that’s stupid.” Either one, way to propagate and normalize juvenile displays of homophobia, especially in a film that’s generally pretty heteronormative. The only reference to a character with any kind of LGBTQ orientation or experience—Summer having had a short same-sex relationship in college—is again played for laughs, rather than being treated as a normal part of her relationship history. Another line that earned my disappointment? When Tom is avoiding initiating the big what-is-our-relationship talk with Summer (because he’s afraid the answer will be “I don’t want to be in a relationship”), his little sister’s advice? “Don’t be a pussy.” Granted, I realize that there is irony in this line being delivered by a strong, young, athletic girl, but the use of the pussy=girl=weak=not-something-a-guy-should-be angle is old and, again, just not really funny to me.

I know that some people would tell me to lighten up. But I don’t want to. This kind of stuff is so embedded in our culture and so often goes unmentioned or unchallenged. And so I just don’t feel like lightening up.

She started with a story: She was on a plane coming home from South Africa. The man sitting next to her asked her what she had been doing there. Contemplating whether she wanted to get into that conversation with him, she turned the question on him. He replied, “I was in a golf tournament.” Oh, what the heck, why not, she figured. “I was there doing work as a radical feminist lesbian,” she told him. He was taken aback, and hemmed and hawed, asking, “is radical really necessary?” and “aren’t men and women already equal really?” She spent the rest of the plane ride writing a poem for him, which she performed last Friday night at Word X Word. It was amazing. It offered a litany of examples of the ways that women are oppressed and treated unequally in our culture, ending with the words: “and that is why I am a radical feminist.”

Alix Olson is profound and hilarious, full of fire and strength. Totally right on. Her performance left me excited and fired up and ready to ask questions and challenge the status quo. She also performed “Womyn Before”:

On Friday, towards the end of that piece, she elicited names from the audience as she quietly chanted “womyn before me.” Urging us to break through the initial silence, she motioned with her hands for us to shout out names, saying, “I believe shyness is a tool of patriarchy.” I made the first contributions that popped into my head: Ani DiFranco, Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt (I feel a future post coming with a more extensive list!).

I’m new to Alix’s work, but I just ordered a few CDs, and I am totally excited to dig into her stuff. Some initial pieces to check out (lots of YouTube out there): America’s On Sale!, Picnic Table, Cute for a Girl, Subtle Sister, and Armpit Hair. Any recommendations?

To round out this post, here she shares a few words on feminism:

This freewrite is from a couple years ago, but it’s a great prompt to revisit again and again.

Prompt: The things I carry.
Time: 10 minutes.

I carry lists. Lists of what I need to do, of what I want to do, of what I should do. Lists of groceries, of songs to look up, of books to read. I carry the knowledge that my grandmother wrote lists, loved lists, carried her own lists, and this is perhaps why I look fondly on my compulsion to write things down and order them in some way accordingly. I carry stories of my grandmother—good stories, sad stories, stories we share. Stories of my whole family—some that have been told year after year, meal after meal, others that have rarely, if ever, been told. I carry emergency contact numbers and my blood donor card (A positive; the sticker says “active” even though I’ve only donated once)—just in case. In case something happens and a stranger needs to find out who I am, who to call. If I can’t tell the stranger myself. I carry things to hold—a rock, a trinket my mother gave me, a notebook. The notebook, for thoughts that I carry and wish to put down, on paper, in writing. Before they get lost along the way, like coins falling from a hole in my pocket or like that extra button whose thread has unraveled.

This past week was the first annual Word X Word Festival in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, organized by Jim Benson of Mission and his crew. Five nights to celebrate and experience words, written, spoken, and sung. Such a genius idea, so well pulled off.

Shira Erlichman

Shira Erlichman

The first of two spoken word events I had the chance to check out featured the multitalented Shira Erlichman—poet, musician, and artist. My friend Angela, who booked her for Take Back the Night in Amherst, told me that I would love her work, and she was spot on with that prediction. My take: Shira’s awesomely inimitable voice, rhythm, words, and presence speak to the richness of life. From charmingly playful to honestly serious, she is powerful, she is delightful, she is fiery. She leaves you wanting more (upon encore, she asked the audience if we’d rather hear another poem or another song; we replied, “both!” and she graced us with just that). While I’ve only gotten a small taste of her work, I can most certainly tell you this: she totally rocks.

And she’s even so cool as to have answered a few of my questions over e-mail—you, too, will be captivated.

What are some of your favorite words? (Me, I’m a big fan of inimitable, querulous, and weltschmerz.)

Shira: In linguistics class my freshman year of college, we studied compound words, and my life was changed. Compound words take the cake. Hopscotch, eyelash, see-saw, hammerhead. I love the minds that thought: one word is not enough! Let’s use two! Highrise, see-saw, chill-pill—they are tiny poems. Once you start to notice them, they’re everywhere. Following close behind compounds are: float, sink, sift, rub, sweep—words that somehow sound like the movement they signify.

Two things that make you happy and two things that make you angry?

Shira: Two things that make me happy are my girlfriend and riding a longboard. Two things that make me angry are not understanding my feelings and not understanding computers.

What do you hope people take away from experiencing your work?

Shira: At times, especially with sad pieces, or awkward pieces, or confused pieces, I hope they sense that someone else has gone through what they have gone through—that they feel connected, to themselves, to me, and to the other people in the room sharing the experience. On the other side, the laughing side, the silly side, the poems and songs that walk on that dock, I hope they feel lifted from the fog or sadness they’ve felt, that the song rubs the mud off their shoes, that they laugh. I hope the work opens a window they didn’t know was there. Perhaps they thought it was a brick wall. Perhaps the window suddenly floats over an ocean inside them. Most of all, I hope people leave feeling less alone.

Random factoid about one of your songs or poems?

Shira: I wrote the song “Bronze” in poet Jon Sand’s parents’ house in Ohio while on tour. “Your Life is a Kaleidoscope” was written on the way to and from the bathroom. “Daddy’s Parking Lot Sermon” came out in one sitting, almost 100% as it is now. The first line of “Power Out” (“Our TV medicine is dead, dead, dead!”) is the title of a song by my brother, Shai Erlichman.

Who do you think totally rocks?

Shira: I think The Whitehaus in Jamaica Plain, MA, totally rocks. Kate Bush totally rocks. Devoted and passionate teachers totally rock. The Cantab Lounge audience in Cambridge, MA, totally and completely rock. They do not hold back, they want you to win, they root for world peace—the ultimate ability to rock. People like that totally rock.

Where can we see you perform next?

Shira: From mid-September to late November, you can see me perform with nationally touring Elephant Engine High Dive Revival. Specific dates will be up this month at www.myspace.com/elephantengine. You can also check out my website www.shiraerlichman.com for dates for this tour and beyond.

* * * * *

A prediction of my own: you’ll want to listen to the video above many times over.

Oh, and she plays the ukulele, too. That’s just cool.

Big thanks to her for being awesome, in myriad ways.

More on the other Word X Word performance I attended, featuring spoken word poet Alix Olson, to come.

On a recent trip to Michigan to visit my dear friend Gabe, I found myself on the edge of Lake Michigan—a place I’d never been before (well, except for five minutes in Chicago, but that was completely different). Having grown up spending part of my childhood on Cape Cod, I was struck by the feeling of being at the ocean.

Shore of Lake Michigan

Shore of Lake Michigan

Deep, almost tropical blue water like the ocean, waves like the ocean, endless expanse of water like the ocean. But no salty residue at the end of a swim. I was enamored. Esch Beach, Charlevoix Beach (we found Petoskey stones, even!), and my favorite: Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Beginning of Sleeping Bear Dune area

Beginning of Sleeping Bear Dunes

This is the legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes (warning: it’s not a particularly happy story): There once was a mama bear with two cubs, forced into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire on its shore. They swam and swam for hours to reach the other shore, and the two cubs, growing tired, lagged behind. The mother bear reached shore first and took a place on a nearby bluff to keep a lookout for her cubs. The cubs never reached the shore though—their exhaustion overcame them, and they perished in the Lake not far from shore. The mother bear never left her lookout post, though, and eventually she grew tired, and laid down to sleep. Never leaving, she died there, the sand covering her in time. The universe was moved to create two islands in the spot where the cubs met their fate (North and South Manitou islands), and the mother bear at her lookout became the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Sad legend, beautiful place. The dunes were huge, and it felt like we were at the edge of the world.

Edge of the world—or at least the edge of Lake Michigan.

Edge of the world—or at least the edge of Lake Michigan.

On our way out of the park as the sun was setting, we stopped at the Dune Climb, where I scrambled up to the top of the first major dune (it was that kind of thing where you get to the top, only to realize there are more dunes and more crevices and climbs to explore). From the edge of the world to the top of the world.

Me at the top of the world at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Me at the top of the world at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Another cool thing about northern Michigan: lots of milkweed to nourish the local monarch population; we saw quite a few caterpillars and a couple butterflies, too. There’s an informal census ongoing.

Gabe appreciating the local flowering milkweed.

Gabe appreciating the local flowering milkweed.

There were many other delights: the Cook’s House in Traverse City, several co-op visits, birthday celebration, history lessons, porch sitting, Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire (highly recommend their fudgesicles and sunflower butter chocolate bar), Short’s Brewery in Bellaire (I had a beer called Strawberry Short’s Cake—it’s brewed with two pounds of strawberries per gallon, plus cream and biscuits and sugar, and it’s really good), Hummingbird Nectar tea from Light of Day Organics, more porch sitting, walking, lounging, all sorts of talking. It was a magical visit all around—northern Michigan adventures, low-key downtime, and quality time for connecting with a dear person.

Me happy to be in Michigan.

Me happy to be in Michigan.

See, look, that's happy.

See, look, that's happy.

On this sweltering day, it feels fitting to give a heads-up about 350.org, an awesome grassroots organization that’s addressing the climate crisis—global warming, climate choas, and its many manifestations. What’s with the number 350? It’s the level of carbon dioxide (in parts per million) that is safe and sustainable for human life on our dear little planet. We’re currently at 387.81 (not good, not good at all)—but we can work toward lowering it. To that end, 350.org is organizing an awareness and action event, the International Day of Climate Action, when people and communities around the world will come together to urge citizens and leaders everywhere to step up their work on this important issue.

In the words of author and environmental activist Bill McKibben, who heads up 350.org, “People everywhere are figuring out that 350 is the most important number on earth, that October 24 is going to be the most widespread day of climate action ever, and that six weeks before the big UN talks in Copenhagen we’ll stand together to change the debate on climate change.”

Learn more, find an event, or create your own!

Whenever I look at this photo of me when I was little:

When I Was a Boy

I played horseshoes.

I think of this song (“When I Was a Boy,” by Dar Williams):

Prompt: I’m gonna be a farmer, plowing the field in the morning sun. (opening line of the song “Sweet Life,” by Science for Girls)
Time: 10ish minutes

I’m gonna be a farmer, plowing the field in the morning sun. I’m gonna get down on my knees and put my hands in the dirt and feel the midday sweat on the back of my neck. I’m going to fall into bed at the end of the day with strong, sore muscles, delivered swiftly into dreams of the life I am already living. I will grow ideas, from seed. Fed and nurtured by the sun—by words, by feelings, by time, by a community of fellow thinkers. Watered by music, each voice, each instrument, each note a raindrop. I will work hard. I will work on and on and on. There will be seasons of drought, of blight, of flooding. And there will be seasons of bounty. Barn raisings and hoedowns. Milking time and market time. And sitting on the porch in the late afternoon drinking sun tea with a fellow farmer, talking about crops and weather and so-and-so down the road who’s feeling better today.

If you’ve never heard this amazing harmonizing folk-pop trio, then you don’t know what you’re missing. Girlyman is made up of Ty Greenstein, Nate Borofsky, and Doris Muramatsu—and they are delightfully bewitching. They also have the best and most charming stage banter I’ve ever heard—from one-of-a-kind tuning songs to stories about seagull attacks. I spend as much time laughing while I’m at a Girlyman show as I do fawning over Ty from afar (a lot).

My friend Angela and I first saw them when they opened for Dar Williams at the Calvin in Northampton in 2005. Since then, there’s been many a show in many a venue: a church in Pittsfield, the Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton (PACE), the Iron Horse in Northampton, and Club Passim in Boston. I think I’m up to seven shows total. And there will definitely be more.

I got their new album, Everything’s Easy, in the mail a few weeks ago (yes, I preordered it; I just can’t help myself).

Everything's Easy—signed, sealed, delivered.

Everything's Easy—signed, sealed, delivered.

My current favorites from this CD: Could Have Guessed, Storms Were Mine, Somewhere Different Now, My Eyes Get Misty.

Another cool thing about the new album: the liner notes.

Yes, that's my name in the liner notes! Yes, I'm goofily excited by this.

Yes, that's my name in the liner notes! Yes, I'm goofily excited by this.

If you’re looking for other songs of theirs to check out, while I would say check them all out, here’s an incomplete list of my perennial favorites (from all of their CDs): The Shape I Found You In, Easy Pearls, Young James Dean, Speechless, Amaze Me, Joyful Sign, Through to Sunrise. Oh! And they do awesome covers, too, like All Through the Night, Angel of the Morning, and Son of a Preacher Man.

Me, Ty, Nate, Doris, and Angela after the PACE show

Me, Ty, Nate, Doris, and Angela after PACE show

If your answer is no, I’m not surprised. I had never heard of her until my friend Gabe enlightened me. Get this: first female Secretary of Labor, first female Cabinet member, hugely instrumental in so much of the New Deal that FDR gets credited for. I just finished reading a new biography about her, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kirsten Downey. Highly recommended.

The Woman Behind the New Deal

The Woman Behind the New Deal

As Downey lays out in the compelling (in that I-just-have-to-keep-reading kind of way) prologue, FDR called Frances Perkins into a meeting to offer her the position of Secretary of Labor. She told him that she would accept the position only if he backed her up on achieving the following:

  1. A 40-hour workweek
  2. Minimum wage
  3. Worker’s compensation
  4. Unemployment compensation
  5. Federal law banning child labor
  6. Direct federal aid for unemployment
  7. Social Security
  8. Revitalized public employment service
  9. Health insurance

By the time she left office, items 1–8 were complete or in the works. She spearheaded programs that people today take for granted. She immensely improved the lives of working men and women in our country, in especially rough times. She even fought to allow more refugees from Germany into the United States as Hitler rose to power. All this in a culture that often dismissed her based on the fact that she was a woman. And a culture that barely remembers who she is now. Here’s to remembering, celebrating, spreading the word, and continuing the legacy.

Check out the Frances Perkins Center.

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