Guitar Hero = Arts Education Hero...?

One of the coolest things at the Americans for the Arts Convention last weekend was the Guitar Hero/Wii set up. Yes, I am a video game geek as you know, and when I discovered in the "After Words Lounge" that there was not only a Wii set up, but a Wii set up with a data projector and big screen, I just about plotzed. Audibly.

My friend Graham and I played a few rounds of Dance Dance Revolution, but I suck at it, even though I have the game. It's really difficult. Then we broke out the Guitar Hero and I schooled him and schooled him until he gave up and went to bed.

A bit later, I realized I was the last person in the room. And it was 2 a.m.

The following day, between some slow sessions, I wandered around the conference's main networking area, where they had a little bookstore, some internet kiosks, and (?) a man cutting mirrors into small pieces that he then strung up and dangled on a wire.

In between his table and the bookstore was...Guitar Hero! Just on a regular screen, but, you know, whatever. Guitar Hero. !!!

I put my bags down and played for a while. I don't mean to brag, but I'm not bad. I can rock out to Hard on most songs, and I almost never fail out of songs (except for Steely Dan--lame!).

A few people wandered over while I played and tried to talk to me, but when I play Guitar Hero, I go into full on Rain Man mode and can't participate in the outside world.

That is, until a middle-aged woman approached me.

"Does this even help you play the guitar?" she asked?

I tapped away on the buttons, my fingers little blurs on the fretboard. "Well, no," I said.

"I didn't think so," she said. "My daughter plays the guitar and she's been asking for this, but I don't see the point."

"Well, I couldn't walk over and be able to play it after playing Guitar Hero," I said, circling my point like a shark ready to feed, "but it does teach you some skills that are important to playing guitar."

"Like what?"

"Like visual rhythm comprehension," I said, tapping out a riff for emphasis. "I have to take the notes on the screen and, based on the time signature of the song, play them at the right time, on the right rhythm."

She was quiet.

"Plus there's the whole sight-reading thing," I went on.

"Sight reading?"

"Yeah, like, I've never played this song before, so I'm basically figuring it out as I go, which is all sight reading. That's a skill I learned in band class. My teacher would put music in front of me and I'd have to figure out the notes and the rhythm on the first try."

"Oh." She wandered away.

But I think I made my point, especially to myself. I'd never considered that Guitar Hero could be a form of music education, and while, yeah, you can't play an actual guitar without some help, the last time I checked, playing race car video games didn't teach you how to drive. (Right, mom?) But they can train your reflexes and coordination, which makes you a better driver even if it doesn't make you a driver in the first place.

I think people would more readily see a connection between dance education and Dance Dance Revolution. In that case, you have to time your steps to the floating arrows on the screen--basically the same concept, different controller--and, if you're good, you can make it look like you're actually dancing.

If you're me, you can make it look like you're actually seizing.



I spent my weekend up in Baltimore at the Americans for the Arts Mid-Century Summit. It was awesome.

I presented on a panel called "Leadership and Influence," and talked about my experience "embedding" myself in the DC area arts community after moving here two years ago. I spent quality time with the Emerging Leaders Council members doing a lot of our annual work over a few days of meetings and networking sessions, and I really enjoyed meeting the new arts professionals who attended the convention, many for the first time.

I left with a lingering question, though, which was: where were my literature peeps?

The Americans for the Arts Convention drew about 1,000 people from all over the country. It seems evenly split between professionals who work in state and local government agencies and professionals in private nonprofits. Many of the panels and talks are oriented toward business-related concerns; this year, for example "exploring new business models in the nonprofit sector" was a big and important topic--and also a slightly incendiary one!

Over the course of the weekend, I compared this crowd and experience with AWP's annual conference, which now attracts over 8,000 people, most of whom are employed by or involved in higher education. But through my involvement with AWP's Writing Conferences & Centers program, I know that there are a significant number of independent nonprofit literary organizations who attend AWP, who present there, who exhibit there. These organizations would really benefit from a connection with Americans for the Arts, and I think as our world becomes more interdisciplinary and "hybridized," connections with our arts colleagues in other areas will be more and more important.

Consider, for example, that a huge portion of the Americans for the Arts event is build around Arts Education--both understanding what makes it successful and how to rally public and private support for it. But many organizations in the nonprofit sector also engage in arts education, including literary organizations like The Writer's Center, so it benefits us to be connected to the larger discussion, to have colleagues in the field.

The Emerging Leader Council has been a true gift to me personally and professionally this past year, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve on it. The convention this year will full of young leaders and leaders new to the arts administration field who represented workers at all levels in their organizations. The literary world, too, is full of smart, passionate, and entrepreneurial leaders who found presses (No Tell Books), establish affinity organizations for writers (Kundiman), and convene (Lambda's seminars for GLBT writers), yet those perspectives and talent were absent from this weekend.

When you consider that more and more of "literary" (scare quotes intentional) publishing is moving into the nonprofit sector, I wonder why more and more professionals aren't reaching out to be a part of the sector as a whole. We rely more deeply on governmental grants and funding from philanthropic foundations, yet we aren't a part of the organization that lobbies Congress on behalf of art everywhere.

Is it too incendiary for me to posit that we might be reaping too many benefits and sowing too few seeds?

From my perspective, with seven years of experience in this field, I can honestly say I feel dance and literature are the two arts most commonly "left off" the catalog of arts disciplines in our country. I'd say that even film, despite its connection to a robust for-profit enterprise, is still more commonly recognized as "art" than writing and dance are. Yet writers are one of only two kinds of artists who receive direct financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts. It's a strange conflict to witness. I've watched literary orgs jump back and forth between arts councils and humanities councils because their programming seems to wear the other hat (or both, or neither distinctly enough for their tastes). And now I feel like I see the community of literary professionals forsaking involvement in the greater arts conversation that could, over time, get us a better seat at funders' tables.

Does literature's symbiotic relationship with the academy separate us from the arts community? I did notice that another underrepresented group at the Americans for the Arts Convention were arts administrators who work within systems of higher education. (In fact, the first time I attended this Convention was during my tenure at ASU, and I came away feeling like there were no colleagues for me or information relevant to my job at that event.) And it's true that for many university presses, rather than lobby their elected officials for funding, they lobby their administrators and regents instead.

But I can't help feeling that the stronger our arts field is, the more inclusive and diverse it is, the stronger our impact will be, the more readily funding will be made available and a greater diversity of voices will be heard.

What do my literary colleagues think about this?


The news from home.


There is a woman in my hometown walking through a house. The house no longer has a roof.

I heard it on NPR this morning as I was driving to work. I'd heard within hours of it happening from family and had already seen photos, seen updates on Facebook, been made aware. My town is so small that NPR didn't even say its name, just placing it in its state: Wisconsin.


I don't know whose house this is. Whose house it was. It doesn't matter, not in a certain way. Because how do you look at photographs of the place you grew up and see this?

Every day when I have checked websites to see what there is to know, numbers go up. 25 houses destroyed. 50 houses destroyed. Today: 100 houses destroyed, widespread destruction. The building where my dad kept an office for over 10 years now has no roof, has two inches of water where the carpeting used to be.

I looked through the photos for anything familiar. I recognized one face, the woman at the top of this blog post, who lived next door to me for 12 years. When I was growing up, she had a dog. It was named Tyler. A poodle. It was so smart and scrappy that it learned to jump up--seriously three feet up--and ring the front doorbell with its nose when it wanted to come back inside.

Behind there house, a small grove of trees left wild, just large enough for children to slip inside. I spent whole days in there, sitting on tree branches with my friends, climbing trees, trying to see in our neighbors' windows.

Beyond that, the iconic water tower: a yellow smiley face. Yes. It lacks irony.

Eagle--the name of the town, I said it, I named it--is the place where two state highways cross. There are railroads, a lumberyard, a family-owned grocery store that finally shut down. It was the kind of town where the man who owned the furniture store and also owned the funeral home because, at one time, the guy who built the couches also built the caskets. There were more churches than banks, more bars than churches, and even train tracks that had a short but noticeable wrong side.

My childhood is filled with unsupervised afternoons and evenings, freight train horns, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles that crackled through town, like robins, to recognize the arrival of spring.

And now people who helped raise me are picking up splintered wood and clothing and broken glass from their yards.


How do I tell you I lived in the house in this photo? Not the one that was wrecked; the other one. The one that survived. My old house, leaning out of the picture shyly as if it would prefer not to be photographed. My old house, nearly undamaged.

How do I explain to you this house overlooks the neighborhood of newer homes that was flattened by the tornado? That once, before there were houses there, they were fields, wide and empty.

That my classmates from high school who live nearby are going home to help people in whatever way they can.

That I am sitting by my computer, clicking through photographs, looking for someone I know. A place I know. But I know all the places. I know all the people. Because they are me.


Some cooking tips

In my quest to cook and eat healthier (except when stressed, when I eat Skittles in a gross and shameful quantity), I've discovered a few handy ingredient swapping tips.

Whole Wheat Pasta
When I first started eating this, I didn't like it. I thought it tasted dry and had a sort of sandy texture to it. But now that it's been ALL I've eaten for a while, I love it. I actually sort of prefer it. The same thing happened to me with white and brown rice. Once I made the switch, I liked the healthier version a lot more. Now pasta is a bigger part of our diet, which is great, since it's such a simple meal.

Favorite dish: Whole wheat pasta tossed with vinaigrette, diced tomatoes, chickpeas, and feta

Potatoes get a bad rap. They're full of nutrients and, if you're good about how you accessorize them, naturally fat-free. Bread and pasta made with potato flour is healthier than the white-flour equivalent and much tastier too.

Favorite dish: Gnocchi with fresh sauteed green beans, grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and pesto

Breadcrumb substitutions
Whenever a recipe calls for breadcrumbs, you have two healthier and tastier options. When the recipe is like meatloaf or meatballs and calls for breadcrumbs to act as a binding agent in the mixture, you can substitute quick-cooking oats instead. While the mix will look like you dumped meat into a bowl of cereal, the finished product will not have visible oatmeal all over it, I promise.

Panko breadcrumbs are a healthier (and all-around better) substitute for traditional breading. Yum! A third option is to grind up whole wheat crackers and use cracker meal, but I rarely do this because it still involves a flour step.

Favorite dish: Italian-seasoned meatballs made with oats and herbs.

Eggs are the best breakfast. Because they're so high in protein, they keep you feeling fuller longer and magically prevent you from over-eating later in the day (seriously). When I eat eggs at 7:30, I don't get hungry for lunch until 1:30. If I eat cereal at the same time, I'm hungry at 11.

Favorite dish: scrambled eggs with Chipotle Tobasco

Cottage cheese
Fat-free cottage cheese is another miracle food that keeps you feeling fuller, has good vitamin content, and is high in protein. Plus, it cries out to be combined with all sorts of healthy stuff: dried fruit, whole fruit, peanut butter, even herby stuff like pesto. You can mash it into egg salad! You can use it to make lasagna (if you live in the midwest)!

Favorite dish: cottage cheese with dried cranberries


Bye bye, cable

If you're not sitting down, you should be. Because what I'm about to tell you is going to rock you to the very foundations of what you believe to be true about me.

Beau and I are turning off our cable TV.

Why? Because it's spendy and mostly crap. How many Sundays have I watched myself fall into a shameful HGTV spiral of House Hunters International,, Property Virgins, Holmes on Homes, and Design Star? Folks, I don't even own a house! Plus, those are hours I could be writing or reading.

The most useful part of our cable subscription is the DVR we have, a fussy, uncooperative little thing that cuts off shows, decides what and when to record, and so forth. We never watch shows when they are broadcast--except maybe America's Next Top Model.

With the rise of Hulu, we feel pretty confident that the things we love to watch throughout the year will stay on our radar. Other stuff we'll catch on Netflix and on DVD.

The only thing I'm sad about is losing True Blood, but I'll forget all the spoilers by the time the DVDs come out A YEAR FROM NOW. (Lame.)

Wish us luck! If you have any cable-free tips on TV watching, please send them our way.


Summer's here and it's pissed

It must be summer in Maryland, because it's either raining, hailing, or sizzling outside. I just walked the dog and felt like my skin was simultaneously peeling away from my body and developing blisters.

What does this mean? Well, it means this past week was DC Pride. It's important that this festival occur at a time of year when everyone smells awful and every enclosed gay space smells like a locker room with broken bottles of Abercrombie & Fitch cologne littered about.

Such was the case on Friday night when I took in the drag show at Town, which featured some very special guest ladies: stars (and losers) of RuPaul's Drag Race season 2 Morgan McMichaels, Tatianna, and Sahara Davenport.

Here's the skinny on these skinny ladies:

Sahara Davenport had clearly just invested in a new Bedazzler, as just about every stitch of clothing on her body (which wasn't much to begin with) was encrusted with shiny glass and beads. It was like Britney Spears in the "Toxic" video, if you could retroactively subtract 9 cheeseburgers. Her performances weren't great. She was clearly not America's next drag superstar. C-

Tatianna was, I thought, really unpleasant on the show and I had given her low marks on the internal scoresheet I maintain in my head. Although RuPaul often lauded her for serving up Real Girl action, I was like, meh. Drag's more fun when it's bawdy and inappropriate, not aiming for realness. After all, these are men in dresses. But let me say that having done drag from the age of 14 on, Tatianna she was the hell she was doing. She was a fantastic performer, great dancer, and--yes, girls, this matters--knew the words to her songs. A+

Morgan McMichaels was also really good. She was fun, had great songs that suited her, and she was gabby on the mic, which I like. But she was definitely lip synching in Tati's shadow, unfortunately. A-

I wish I could write more, but honestly, they were serving $2 rail drinks and I'm not proud.

The regular ladies of Town were, I think, subdued a bit as a tribute to their guests. We got a little Tina Turner medley and "Barbie Girl" starting with the queen in a foamcore Barbie box that she broke apart. The production values are definitely going up.

It took about five minutes of dancing for the entire lower level of Town to smell like a dirty gym sock. The humid air was thick like cashmere--so at least it felt expensive. We danced for a while, but honestly, neither my heart nor my nose was really in it.


The Big Snapple

Some of you know my longstanding feeling about New York City.

It wasn't kind.

That's not to say I haven't enjoyed visiting there. In fact, I've probably enjoyed it too much. My last significant visit for vacation, I was in my mid-twenties. It was me, a financial aid check, and every bar in Manhattan. Not to mention the shopping. I bought shoes, bags, a cheap fake watch and sunglasses in Chinatown. Whatever I couldn't wear, I drank. And whatever I didn't drink, I ate. It was a five-day loop of that, of waking up around noon, fuzzy-headed and warmed by the July sun spilling in through the windows of my friend's Brooklyn flat. It was strange men in bars. It was spontaneous trips to Pommes Frites, to walk by The Cock and hear scandalous stories of its backroom (but not going in).

In fact, the happiest thing this side of love happened to me in New York: I was name-checked--loudly--by Reb Livingston as I exited the Prada store on 5th Avenue. It was like a dream. Except in the dream I have a black AmEx and a poolboy named Brody Jenner.

Possibly I loved New York too much and knew if I lived there, I wouldn't be living long.

But that's not all of it. Tall cities are dark, depressing. Oppressive. I hate the streets like long corridors with oversized walls. The smells. Oh, the smells. If the air doesn't smell like something edible, it smells like things that used to be edible, or were eaten and then, you know, returned to the earth, so to speak. Not to mention there's a higher than normal incidence of body odor among people within Manhattan itself. I don't know if there's any correlation.

On previous trips to Manhattan, I felt like everyone around me was thin, smoking a cigarette I wasn't able to smoke myself, and wearing black. It was like the entire city was populated by semioticians! Many of the people I met were either artists or bankers. I remember meeting a young woman--let's call her Amanda--who mixed drinks at a bar that only had red lighting in it. It was like having a martini in a Soviet propaganda ad. She had a boyfriend, she said, but sometimes liked to make out with girls. I don't know why that's such a strong memory. She was blond; her hair was the color of blood in the light.

This time, here's what I noticed:
> Manhattan men are having a fashion crisis
> It really does smell like I remembered
> It's really fun

Beau and I hit the Guggenheim and I loved the exhibits. The permanent collection, with its Renoirs and Gauguins and Degas...es, was a treat, but my favorite exhibition was the Kazimir Malevich, a Russian Suprematist, whose cubist/abstract paintings were like Mondrian on psychotropic mushrooms. The current exhibition, Haunted, featured some really intriguing pieces too. Some were a miss for me. But it was such a great space in which to view art.

We bustled over to meet a friend of Beau's for coffee. At her salon, while we waited, I had my first real honest-to-god non-literary real famous person sighting: Sigourney Weaver. I did a good job of not staring, although perhaps it was obvious I was trying desperately not to stare. Still--and not that you care or it matters--she is a normal looking person and she was very warm and kind with the staff at the salon. I like a nice famous person. I also like supermegapowerbitches too (Blair Waldorf), but only when they've earned it. I didn't see one of those.

After a nice coffee break, we dove into The Strand, which was crawling with people. The only thing I wanted? A t-shirt to replace the one I spilled food on. They didn't have my size. They DID have a big sign by one of the shirts with Dan Humphrey on it that said AS SEEN ON GOSSIP GIRL, which made it sting even more.

We walked about 800 blocks back to our hotel and then changed to go see American Idiot, the musical based on the Green Day album of the same name. We were really early. I won't lie. We were wearing the same thing we wore to the Lammys. (Reduce, reuse, rewear!) Just about everyone else going to the show looked like Jesse James: jeans, West Coast Choppers t-shirts. Some people went fancy with a long-sleeved polo shirt and a pair of Wranglers. The show itself was great. I knew most of the music really well. The set is astounding--it goes up and up and up. At the top of a fire escape that goes almost the entire height of the stage, a lone violinist sat playing her music. I felt for her. Being up that high would have made me dizzy and nauseated.

The choreography was what I'd call "masculine," meaning it was minimal and mostly punching and stomping. Some performances were great, some...seemed like they couldn't sing very well. As you know, I've often said musical theatre is neither musical nor theatre, but I make exceptions when the source material is non-traditional (American Idiot, Mamma Mia! or transgressive in some way (Spring Awakening, Jesus Christ Superstar).

Afterwards, we sauntered back to the hotel, fell asleep, and then woke up early to get on our BoltBus back to DC. A quick trip! But, possibly the best kind.


The 2010 Lammys

I'm late posting my eyewitness account of this year's Lambda Literary Awards. Chalk it up to the holiday weekend, which I spent with my Nofriendo Wii or watching the worst movie on Netflix ever, or my day in NYC (forthcoming), or the fact that Beau spontaneously decided Monday night was the night we should rotate our artwork and reorganize some parts of our apartment (which looks fab, by the way).

I got to the Lammys late because my publisher, Steve Berman, took the Lethe Press nominees (Dan Stone, Tom Cardamone, and me, and Beau) out to dinner at a very nice restaurant. We had a nice bottle of wine and Steve urged to me to try foie gras for the first time, which I did. Beau whispered to me, "What does it taste like?" I told him it was like that weird wine-cheese dip you can get--oddly salty and rich at the same time. He agreed with my assessment. It wasn't bad, but probably not something I'll ever crave, like Skittles, cigarettes, or a Craftsman-style home.

After dinner, we jetted over to the theatre just in time. I bumped, almost literally, into David Groff and said hi and then skittered into a seat last row center, next to the video camera. I felt like a seat filler at the Oscars, but my outfit was cuter.

The ceremony itself was long, but I valued it. The address by Larry Kramer is something I am so grateful to have experienced. He's one of my heroes. I think he's amazing, and to see him recognized with a Lambda honor and to hear him talk about his career and his forthcoming book was--without sounding corny--really special to me.

I won't lie and say I was supercool when my category came up halfway through the event. But I will say that I wasn't disappointed my book wasn't chosen. Part of me thought I could win; the rest was sure I would lose to one of the other very talented writers in the pool, and was happy to lose to any of them. I hadn't prepared anything to say, if that tells you anything. And neither had Benjamin Grossberg, whose book was honored, but he gave one of the cutest and most genuine comments of the whole night when he took the podium. Congratulations, Benjamin!

The other highlights for me were Rakesh Satyal's long but inspired acceptance speech, sung to the tune of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" (only at a gay event would this not only be tolerated but valued), and the woman who described how fate tried to ruin her day: "I woke up with a pimple under my nose. Then my first flight to New York was canceled. Then, on the flight I did take, the flight attendant spilled Diet Coke all over me. So you know what? Suck it, fate!" Awesome.

Beau and I each picked up a gift bag as we left, just like we were at the Oscars, except instead of gadgets and gizmos, our bags were full of books and grassroots calls to activism. My bag had the RuPaul beauty book in it, which I was really excited about because I also love some RuPaul ("Good luck, and don't fuck it up" might be the best advice ever). Beau got four books, which made this whole experience oddly reminiscent of Christmas with my family, where gifts for Beau outnumber my own by 2:1.

We ended the night in our closet of a hotel room, eating delivery pizza while watching Zack and Miri Make a Porno on cable. It was perfect.