Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Remember the "Myth California" protests that sprang up in opposition to the Miss California pageant once held in Santa Cruz? Protesting the objectification of women's bodies as not only damaging to female self-esteem, but an invitation to violent sexual assault, activists paraded in front of the Civic dressed in gowns made out of raw meat or dragging bathroom scales chained to their ankles, wearing sashes that identified them as "Miss Used," "Miss Informed," or "Miss Steak."

That was in the early '80s (before the Miss California pageant finally fled Santa Cruz for the simpatico complacency of San Diego). But the spirit of outrage that fueled the "Myth California" activists continues to burn in the new film Miss Representation, a documentary by Jennifer Siebel Newsom that explores the distorted images of women that persist in the mainstream media.

The film presents a broad overview of the rampant sexualization of the female image at all levels of the media, combined with the systematic disrespecting of serious women who have managed to stake out a position of power. "Patriarchy is America's default setting," notes one observer. 30 years later, we still have a long way to go, baby.

Next Monday, Cabrillo College will host a screening of Miss Representation, free and open to the public. After the 90-minute film, a panel moderated by public policy veteran Rose Filicetti will lead the audience in a discussion of the issues it raises. Panelists include Mary Ann Thyken, Executive Director of Community TV, Dr. Ekua Omosupe, poet, Cabrillo Professor, and advocate for social justice, Cynthia Mathews, former Santa Cruz City Council member and three-time Mayor, Charlotte Achen, Cabrillo student body president, and me.

Showtime is 6 pm, Monday, April 30, at the Crocker Theater, Cabrillo College. Panel discussion begins at 7:30 pm. Admission is free.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Inspired by the recent unleashing of the Farrelly Brothers' The Three Stooges on an unsuspecting moviegoing public, Wallace Baine  has written this homage to the original Larry, Moe and Curly over at the Sentinel.

I personally have not seen the new faux-Stooge movie, since I value what few remaining brain cells I still possess. But in courageously outing himself as a closet fan of the original Stooges, Wallace adds fuel to a theory I've harbored for years about the dueling genetic makeup of men vs women.

Let's be very clear about this: I love men. But whatever their individual merits may be, men are a different species than women. I don't mean all that Venus and Mars claptrap; not all women are nurturing earth mothers, any more than all men are head-bashing Neanderthals. And yet there's a fundamental divide that separates male and female from a very early age.

Once, Art Boy painted a ocean-themed mural with three classes of fourth-graders, with each child contributing one creature to the mural. Girls mostly drew mermaids, or funny fish with animal heads. Boys drew gangsta starfish, killer sharks with razor teeth, or fish equipped with rocket launchers and Ninja swords. There were exceptions to prove the rule, of course, but next time your peace is shattered by neighborhood kids bombing around on those midget motorcycles with a roaring exhaust pipe the size of a Sousaphone, guess which gender is riding it?

When Art Boy himself was a kid, so he tells me, he and his buddies used to buy Aurora model kits of movie monsters, painstakingly build, glue, and paint them—and then blow them to smithereens with firecrackers.

But what separates male from female is more than just a primal urge for noise and destruction. It's a much more subtle and insidious cultural reference point, a renegade scrap of odd circuitry in even the most enlightened human males.

I call it the Stooge Gene.

Men find the weirdest things funny. When I was a kid, old Three Stooges shorts from the '30s and '40s were played constantly on TV in syndication. Entire new generations of kids were exposed to Larry, Moe, and Curly bashing each other upside the head, poking each other in the eyes, and hitting each other with hammers, two-by-fours, and bowling pins. Documenting the reaction of little kids could launch a thousand doctoral theses in behavioral psychology. In a nutshell: girls hate the Stooges, and boys love them.

The reverberations continue into our grown-up lives. I used to hate Candid Camera, a voyeuristic species of televised entrapment where ordinary people were set up in ludicrous situations to flounder helplessly for the laughing hidden camera eye. At the end, Allen Funt, or Fannie Flagg or somebody would pop out of the woodwork and let the despairing dupe off the hook, thanking them for being such "a good sport." I always thought it was an appalling act of wanton humiliation. Art Boy thought it was funny. Every time there was a Candid Camera special on TV, he had to watch.

Now that creeping Candid Cameraism has morphed into "reality" TV, there are endless opportunities for men to get in touch with their inner Stooge. On America's Funniest Home Videos, ordinary shmoes are so beguiled by the prospect of cash prizes and a trip to Hollywood that they turn the cameras on each other, urging their spouses, kids, families, even their pets, to make fools of themselves and endanger their lives for the idle amusement of millions.

We once channel-hopped across an AFHV clip in which a woman was posing beside a mountain creek for her videographer husband. She slipped on a slick rock and stumbled knee-deep into the freezing water, shrieking. Did her husband drop the videocam and run to her aid? He did not. He stood where he was, filming it all, laughing like a hyena as his wife slogged around in the drink, struggling to get a foothold. I stared at the screen as slack-jawed as the opening night audience for Springtime For Hitler. Art Boy laughed. Two marriages flirted with disaster.

What twisted demographic is keeping AFHV on the air? How can the Farrellys still have a career? Chalk it up to the Stooge Gene.

(No Aurora monster models were harmed in the writing of this blog.)

Friday, April 20, 2012


If you read (or write) historical fiction, check out the Historical Fiction Survey recently conducted over at  Mary Tod's A Writer of History blog.

Setting out last month to discover evolving tastes and trends among the historical fiction readership, she culled responses from 805 people, readers and writers, female and male, foreign and domestic. And she's been busy compiling her findings ever since.

From general questions about favorite genres and historical periods, reading habits, and selling points ("strong female character" and "significant historical figure" trump military stories and capital-R Romance),  Tod has been branching out into specific topics like "Reasons not to read historical fiction," "Historical fiction would be better if..." and, "Stories that sell" (historical and otherwise).

Back in 2000, when I was laboring to midwife my first novel, The Witch From the Sea, into existence, I conducted my own highly unscientific Historical Fiction Survey via the pages of the pirate fanzine No Quarter Given. Then (unlike now) historical fiction was considered a hard sell in the publishing world, and I wanted to know if anybody was still reading it, and why.

My small but vociferous group of respondents were only 45% female to 55% male (and, given the venue, most had a preference for nautical fiction). Back then, on the cusp of the digital age, respondents bought on the average 4 hardcover books a year and 12 paperbacks.

As to genre, some respondents bristled at the very idea. Citing his favorite author, Rafael Sabatini, one male respondent asked, "Would you consider him mainstream or romance or thriller? I think he has elements of all." Another participant insisted, "an author should not present a book as a work of 'historical fiction,' but rather as 'a great story.'"

What seemed overwhelmingly evident was that readers were less interested in a specific genre, locale, author, or time period, than in finding that elusive good story. As long as the story and/or characters captured their imagination, readers were willing to follow them into all sorts of unchartered waters, be it Romance or sci-fi, Shogun-era Japan or the Third Moon of Endor.

Happily, this still seems to be the case. As Tod writes of her survey respondents, "When asked about the genre they read or what detracts from historical fiction or their favourite authors – the data and comments point to a desire for great stories."

To this I would add something else I've observed lately: popular books (historical and otherwise) often create an entire alternate universe of the imagination that the reader wants to live in.

Who doesn't want to go to Hogwarts, drink Butter Beer, and hobnob with centaurs in the Forbidden Forest? And what about the Cirque de Reves in Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, with its provocative black-and-white striped tents? (Morgenstern only offers us glimpses inside some of the tents, which makes the book practically interactive: readers are free to imagine their own magical attractions lurking within the periphery of Morgenstern's tale.)

On the other hand, in her "Stories That Sell" post, Tod quotes non-fiction author James W. Hall's finding that “Three of the common features [of best selling novels] … are maverick heroes, high stakes and hot sex.” Okay, it's not exactly rocket science, but something to consider when trying to divine what readers really want—at least, if you plan to write a best-seller.

Monday, April 16, 2012


This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Indian Renaissance Man Rabindranath Tagore—poet, musician, philosopher, artist, and Nobel Prize-winner for literature.

In honor of this event, lucky Santa Cruzans will get two chances this weekend to meet another Indian cultural treasure, actress, feminist and filmmaker Aparna Sen, live, in person, right here in our town.

Sponsored by the Satyajit Ray Film & Study Center (Ray FASC) at UCSC, Ms. Sen will be in town for two film events Saturday and Sunday, celebrating the cultural legacy of Tagore, as well as her own stellar career in film.

On Saturday, beginning at 5 pm, at the Media Theater, UCSC, Ms. Sen will be on hand for a screening of the comedy-drama Samapti (Conclusion). This  newly restored short film was originally one episode in the 1961 anthology film Teen Kanya (Three Daughters), directed by maestro Satyajit Ray from three Tagore short stories.

In Samapti, a young law student visiting his home village is pressured by his widowed mother to get engaged to a nice, but boring girl in a neighboring village. Instead, he falls for an unconventional local tomboy—who refuses to go along with an arranged marriage unless she has a chance to choose for herself.

Samapti was also the film debut of 16-year-old Aparna Sen in the role of the reckless, yet stout-hearted tomboy who's not afraid to stand up for herself. Ms. Sen will give a talk on the Tagore heritage and answer questions after the screening. Admission is free.

On Sunday at 2 pm, Ms. Sen will be at the Nickelodeon for a screening The Japanese Wife, a feature film she directed in 2010, about an Indian man in a long-distance love affair with his Japanese pen-pal. A Q & A with Ms. Sen will follow the screening.

Actress, scriptwriter, award-winning filmmaker, magazine editor, frequent international film festival jury member, and recipient of both the Padmashree Award from India, and the Satyajit Ray Lifetime Achievement Award, Aparna Sen is a one-woman cinema institution, so mark your calendar now!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Speaking of Feste, the Fool (as I was last post), have I ever mentioned the books of Alan Gordon?

This medieval mystery series began in 1999 with the appropriately-titled Thirteenth Night. And yes, it's a sequel to a certain Shakespearean play, although in this case it's the clever Fool who takes centerstage, as sleuth and crime-solver.

And he's not the only one. Gordon imagines a Fools' Guild operating across medieval Europe whose members—acrobats, jugglers, and spies—are inserted into the palaces and retinues of the wealthy and powerful in hopes of influencing world events in favor of peace, averting wars, solving hidden crimes, and dispensing justice.

In Thirteenth Night, we learn that the name "Feste" was merely an alias for the Fools' Guild veteran known privately as Theophilos. 15 years after the events of Shakespeare's play, having foiled the plans of Saladin's agent, Malvolio, Theophilos is sent back to "the Duchy of Orsino" to investigate the murder of the late Duke. A case which happily reunites Theophilos with the Duke's widow, the spirited Viola, who is destined to become apprentice, partner, wife and soulmate to Theophilos throughout the series, in their many adventures on behalf of the Guild.

 Who doesn't want the Fool to get the girl? This is by far the most delicious wrinkle in Gordon's audacious design. Subsequent books take the pair to real medieval sites—Constantinople, Jerusalem, Toulouse, the Black Forest—where they interact with known events. There are also occasional detours into other tales of other famous fools, such as Terence of York (nicknamed "Yorick"), of the court of Denmark, in An Antic Disposition.

The great charm of the series is the way Gordon skillfully imagines an entire underground society that's completely off the radar of conventional historical research—yet convincingly embedded in the history of its times.

It was my pleasure to meet Alan Gordon at a Historical Novels Society conference a few years ago. (We were both panelists, although, sadly, not on the same panel.) I'd hauled my personal hardcover copy of Thirteenth Night all the way from Santa Cruz to Albany, NY, in hopes of getting him to sign it. Which he did, although he professed himself astonished to meet someone who had actually bought it in hardcover. ("A rare book," he observed wryly.)

I haven't yet read all the Fools' Guild mysteries, but with eight books in the series (so far), looks like I've got some happy reading ahead!

Monday, April 9, 2012


If you liked last year's Shakespeare Santa Cruz season as much as I did (click here to catch up), then get ready to strap on your sword and buckle your swash for SSC 2012: The Sequel.

Hot on the spurred heels of last season's rollicking combo of The Three Musketeers, the first installment of the "Henriad" trilogy, Henry IV, Part 1, and a beloved Shakespearean comedy, the company's 2012 summer season continues in the same splendid vein.  The centerpiece is, of course, Henry IV, Part 2, in which the roistering young Prince Hal must finally choose between the easy pleasures of the alehouse, the brothel, and the boon companionship of Falstaff, his mentor in vice, and the grandeur, power, and profound responsibility of his father's crown.

There is no theatrical sequel to The Three Musketeers, so SSC stalwart Scott Wentworth wrote one. His original stage adaptation of Dumas' last Musketeer novel,  The Man In the Iron Mask, will have its world premiere right here at SSC this summer. Wentworth has already distinguished himself as both actor and director (he staged Henry IV, Part 1 last summer, and will direct Part 2 this year), and I'm eager to see how this Renaissance Man segues into the role of scribe. In the story, the four Musketeers draw swords one more time to restore the corrupt young king's imprisoned twin brother to the throne of France.

The season's comedy is one of my favorites, Twelfth Night. The plot hinges on a shipwrecked woman disguised as a youth for her own protection, a lovesick Duke with whom "he" inconveniently falls in love, and  a woman dismissive of romance who falls in love with the illusion of a man. Full of swift banter, unrequited passion, even a little swordplay, it's an adroit comedy of love, gender, and identity that never goes out of style. It also features Feste,  one of Shakespeare's wittiest, most penetrating Fools.

Btw, do you love this poster?  Note the top hat, the long, duster coat, the spooky Tim Burton-style tree. Steampunk meets Sleepy Hollow? I can't wait!

The SSC 2012 season plays July 24 through August 26. Season tickets and Group tickets are on sale now. Single tickets go on sale May 15. Click here for all the details.

(Poster art by Schipper Design )

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

FFAT x 100, SCFF x 11

Strap on your walking shoes! Believe it or not, this Friday, April 6, is the 100th installment of the First Friday Art Tour. Yes, it's been 100 months since the first intrepid band of art lovers began the tradition of hot-footing it around town to view local art in a variety of unorthodox art spaces, ingest wine and nibblies, and discover even more excuses to get out and party on Friday nights.

A plethora of special events are lined up to celebrate this landmark occasion.  One of the coolest (and most apropos) is a $100 gift certificate toward the purchase of the local art of your choice to be awarded to some lucky art lover. To register, visit the FFAT Facebook page  and post a brief story or memory, or simply explain what you love about FFAT. The winner will be randomly chosen from registrants on April 6.

Feeling exotic? check out Mary Altier's photography exhibit, "The Body As Canvas: Tattooed, Scarred, Pierced, and Painted," showing (appropriately enough) at the Chimera Tattoo Studio & Gallery, on the Westside (1010 Fair Avenue), through May 30. (That's her photo up top. Here's a peek at more of her amazing work.) Mary has spent 25 years photographing tribal people around the world, and this retrospective exhibit documents the ornamentation of people from Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and India, among others. The FFAT reception will feature West Africa drumming by Ibrahima Ibou Ngom, from Senegal, and live Henna body painting by Rica de Luz.

A more bohemian take on ornamentation is happening over at the Wallflower Boutique (103 Locust St.), where Arielle Rose will be showing her line of eclectic, one-of-a-kind dresses, hand-made from recycled, upcycled, and totally reinvented fabric, lace, and other materials. Wine and cheese accompany the fashion show.

 If you're in the mood for something a little more hands-on, fall by the free, drop-in drawing workshop 6-9 pm at the Scribbles Institute in the Sash Mill complex. Drawing coach Rob Court welcomes all ages and levels of ability; pencils, charcoal, paper, and various inspirational objets will be provided.

Then get ready to mix your media over at the Tannery, at the launch party for the upcoming Santa Cruz Film Festival. To celebrate its eleventh season, SCFF is staging an event they call "The Big Reveal" at the newly opened Tannery Digital Media and Creative Arts Center. Alongside the unveiling of this year's SCFF film lineup, festivities include a live DJ spinning platters, dance performances, art exhibitions, and a no-host bar. Revels continue from 8 pm to midnight.

(Btw, this cool take on the SCFF logo was created in the sand at Its Beach by phenomenal landscape artist Jim Denevan, whose canvas is earth, sand and ice.)

Meanwhile, across the way at the new Tannery dance studio, all regular Friday evening World Dance classes (Polynesian, Haitian, and Argentine Tango) will be free and open to the public between 4:45 and 10 pm. Live dance performances begin at 10:15 and continue til midnight. Click here for the full program.

Of course, there's way more going on than will fit into one little blog, so be sure to scope out the FFAT website and design your personal DIY art tour.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Hey, kids, look at the nifty prize I won a couple of weeks ago, over on the Red Room literary site!

This book was one of the prizes awarded to the three winners of the Creative Challenge, "When Did You First Know You Wanted to be a Writer?" In his post-mortem on the contest, RR co-founder Huntington Sharp wrote:

"We asked Red Roomers to blog about the time they first wanted to become writers. We wanted to know if there was there a "flash" moment when they just knew, or has it always been true?

A few entries stood out:

Member Lisa Jensen has always wanted to write, and her memories of how she's always blended verbal and visual art is fascinating."

Aw, shucks! Here's the post, in toto:

It's not like I ever aspired to "be" a writer. It's not like I had a plan. I never even had an epiphany.

I've just always written. Who knows for how long? Do you remember when you first started breathing?

I loved writing assignments in grade school. I loved to read, and when I got really swept up in a book—like the Anne of Green Gables series so beloved by my mom—I'd continue the euphoria by basically re-writing my favorite scenes using characters and situations I made up. That should have given me a clue.

When I read I Capture the Castle at about age 11, I had to start a journal. At 12, I was corresponding with two European pen pals because I loved to write letters. At  16, I somehow qualified for a Press pass from Teen Set Magazine as a contributing reporter (but I was too shy to ever use it).

But here's the thing: I also loved to draw. When I was a little kid, I kept an oversize, hardcover picture book, The Big Book of Dogs, Cats, and Horses, under the sofa, with a bunch of blank sheets of typing paper and a pencil tucked inside. Whenever I was sitting there at night, watching TV with the family, I'd pull out the book and paper and start drawing.

If I had any plan it all, it was probably to "be" an artist, preferably an illustrator of books, like my favorites, the Alice in Wonderland books, the Oz books, Mary Poppins. But it's funny, I don't remember that I ever aspired to illustrate somebody else's stories; I always envisioned writing and drawing my own.

To this day, I have to draw all my characters—endlessly—before I can even begin to describe them in a book. Worse, I have sketchbooks full of characters whose stories have not yet been written. If graphic novels had been invented back in my misspent youth, maybe I would have started there, although my occasional attempts to map out a scene in comic book-style panels, while entertaining, always took way too much time away from writing the story.

For me, art was all about illustrating the story. Actually telling the story takes words—glorious, aggravating, addictive words. And that's the part I still love most.