March 31, 2012

Bill Cunningham's New York: Just watch this documentary already

“He who seeks beauty will find it.” – Bill Cunningham, Fashion Photographer for the New York Times

This past Sunday I watched Bill Cunningham’s New York, a documentary 10 years in the making, directed by Richard Press.  I am going to do this documentary no justice by trying how to articulate how moving it was, about how carefully the film seemed to capture the essence of who Cunningham is – as a person, a photographer, a New Yorker, and an American icon. Please just watch it, for heaven’s sake. Even if you have no interest in fashion, New York, American culture, or documentaries, you will inevitably be moved by this film, because ultimately, the aforementioned subjects are not what the film is about. It is instead about an 80-something-year-old with the kind of soul you see in so few people; about a man who withholds the kind of rare combination of talent, focus, tenacity, and humility while all the while being sweet, kind, and funny.  More importantly, the film is about a gentleman who leads such a sparse, simplistic life despite living amongst a culture of indulgence and excess, and rather than judging that life of excess in order to separate himself from it, he basks in it like the most courteous of voyeurs merely through the lens of his point-and-shoot camera.

Cunningham's irony is striking because, while uber-passionate about fashion, he dons the same uniform everyday: a basic blue coat, chinos, and a button-down or a suit if he has to attend an event. For dozens of years, he lived in a one-room apartment containing dozens of file cabinets, a couple outfits on wire hangers, and a twin-size mattress atop his filing cabinets.  Luckily, he had a communal bathroom down the hall.

Bill Cunningham is the ultimate ascetic -- a man who doesn’t have time for fancy fare and who hand patches the holes in his  poncho with electric tape. He has lived a solitary life despite being around people all the time, capturing urbanites in fashiony getup on the city streets.  When filmmaker Press asks if he had ever been in a romantic relationship and then baited about his sexual orientation, Cunningham responds that he has never having been in such a relationship. “I didn’t have time for relationships,” he says.

This fact alone demonstrates how unique his disposition on life is. Romantic love, desire, to be wanted seems to be such a basic, fundamental human need. I cannot imagine a life with that feeling, that impetus. And, I don't think that I'm alone in suggesting that most of us would feel less human if such a feeling or need didn’t exist, but just the same, I consider those who appear not to be controlled by that need to be in some ways more evolved than the rest of us.

Even though Cunningham leads such an ascetic life, he is remarkably courteous and good natured, calling the people around him “kids” and “lumberjacks.” Most illuminating about Cunningham is his lack of egocentrism for someone so talented, focused, and well respected in the fashion and journalistic community. In a world where egomaniacs rule – especially those who are deemed successful by society – I am always most touched by someone who is able to maintain a sense of humility in the face of great achievement. That can be no easy feat.

A particularly moving part of the film was when when Press asks, “Does religion play an important role in your life?” Cunningham hangs his head quietly, responding that religion has always been very important in his life. As someone who was raised Catholic (although I don’t practice religion now) I am always interested in how people of the world – you know, grownups with careers, fully shaped personalities and interests, and a working knowledge of science and society, can have such blind faith or perhaps, such a devotion to religion. And while I think spirituality is certainly a need for many of us, what is particularly intriguing is that someone as seemingly evolved and worldly as Cunningham – who, despite his entire sphere revolving amidst the avante garde fashion universe, admits to such consistently conservative religious practices. While much of it may have to do with his ascetic approach to life, and because he’s a product of his generation, it is nevertheless an interesting dichotomy.

I think the best documentaries tear away the layers of the onion piece by piece the way that Bill Cunningham’s New York did. Those are my favorite kinds.  Other personal favorites have been Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Capturing the Friedmans.  As these films reveal, much like in real life, no one is completely what they seem, even if they make every effort to share to the world that they are inside. Just the same, none of us are black and white.

March 22, 2012

Humble Review: The War of Art

I just read this phenomenal book called The War of Art , which I find myself recommending to anyone I know who has felt any kind of calling (be it mastering capoeira, penning your first novel, name the craft here: ___________). I first heard about it by way of this article I read about my girl crush, Esperanza Spalding . If she was moved by it, I knew I probably would be too.

So, while still in the midst of a certain nameless tome that was well-written but which was losing my interest, I stopped midway and picked up Steven Pressfield’s book. My only regret was that I purchased the Nook version (and while I have surprised myself in enjoying the convenience of an eReader), this is the kind of book I strongly recommend buying in hardcopy format, because if you’re like me, you’re going to want to dog-ear and highlight the bejesus out of it.  (Yes, I'm fully aware that I'm a pathetic sap who loves self-help books.)

While Pressfield’s main craft is novel writing (he has published numerous books, including, among others, The Legend of Bagger Vance), the overall theme of this particular book is to “overcome Resistance” in pursuit of “the unlived life within,” which is applicable to any sort of craft or pursuit. This thing called Resistance rises in the face of any kind of achievement we’re striving toward and it consistently and unabashedly tries to prevent us from working toward these goals. Pressfield says of the evil-force of Resistance, though, that it “is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.”

On a personal level, I was particularly struck by one passage where Pressfield talks about experiencing nervousness before embarking on one's craft. This happens to me pretty much every time I sit down to write, and I used to think: What the hell is wrong with me? I’m doing something I love here. Shouldn’t I feel drunken relaxed and swimming in confidence?  (I admire you if you're one of those people who is drunken relaxed and self-confident all the time -- but I can't relate.)  To my surprise, Pressfield says that such jitters are actually a good thing and that these feelings are normal. He writes:

                   The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is   
                   scared to death. . . . The more scared we are of a work or calling,  
                   the more sure we can be that we have to do it. . . . Fear doesn’t go

                  The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which
                 dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day. . . . The more
                 you love your art/calling/enterprise, the more important its
                 accomplishment to the evolution of your soul, the more you will fear it
                 and the more Resistance you will experience facing it.

Now I no longer feel like such a freak. These feelings are normal, and they are clearly not a bad thing. When we’re participating in something we love so passionately, it can feel overwhelming and nervewracking, although hopefully not so much that it is paralyzing. Admittedly, as a Type A perfectionist, the pressure I feel to make things just so the first time around can sometimes paralyze me a bit.  While this is something I acknowledge and am continually working on, what I've learned is that with creative pursuits, in particular, the attainment of “perfection” can be better achieved through consistency, which is why you'll see that some of my blog posts seriously flawed and riddled with typos and misquotes. After all, being 110% is not what creativity is all about, right?

Another interesting aspect about Pressfield's approach to the craft is his emphasis on the importance of spirituality in relation to the craft.  Though he is not necessarily a religious man, he openly admits that he is a spiritual one, and writes about the necessity in calling upon such spiritual forces when embarking on your craft. I found this intriguing, because, while I don't "call upon spiritual forces" before I sit down to write, I have always believed that creative endeavors were synergistically spiritual. Spirituality is broad and open-ended, in that sense.

To get to the root of self, beyond the ego is, in essence a spiritual pursuit. Personally, I feel a sense of spiritual enlightenment when I’m writing, or practicing yoga, or taking a walk through the woods. In his book, Pressfield explains that in order to get beyond the ego and to the self, a recognition of – although not dwelling on – spiritual forces is important. Whether you are spiritual or not, I thought this was a point worth contemplating.

If you are like me, who simply likes to be inspired and to be given the opportunity to look at things from a different perspective, this short, 166-pager is more than worth a read.  And I would even venture to say -- corny as it sounds -- that the book might even be a life-changer. 

Image: Pinterest

March 15, 2012

Birthday Smirthday

 “The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age." - Lucille Ball

So, today happens to be my birthday. Yes, Happy Birthday to me. Clich├ęd as it sounds, I’m not that excited about it. (Well, I take some of that back.  I might be a teeny bit excited about the prospect of guiltlessly being gluttonous for a day or three.)  Up to this point I’ve always indulgently relished in the birthday experience, whether they were my own or those of my friends and loved ones, but as I get older, I’m beginning to feel a little eh about it, like I almost wish it would just stop coming so I could stay young forever. (I’m learning that willing something does not a wish make. Isn’t that unfortunate?)

My husband said to me this morning when I pouted, “It’s okay – you can be 23 forever if you want,” to which he added, “Honestly, if you were 93 right now, it wouldn’t make a difference to me.” I have a hard time believing that one, but he’s one of the Rare and Great Species of Men such that he might actually mean it.

What he doesn’t understand -- because he is a man, though yes, of the Rare and Great Species variety -- is that growing older is a really difficult thing for many women. It’s not something I want to care about or have anxiety over, but I'm sorry, I do.  I’m an imperfect angel, just like Mariah. I worry about it the way that some worry about the world ending (which I also worry about) or whether I’ve hurt someone by something I’ve said (which I also worry about). I worry about it the way I worry about things I can control, only this is something I can't have control over, so as Stevie Wonder says, “So what the fuss?

But that is life – we inevitably grow old and we age and all the while, we are hopefully evolving in the meantime. While we can only have the perspective we're granted, life experiences inevitably teach us that things like age, which at times seem monumental (either for the better or for the worse – usually for the worse – we always seem to be either too young or too old), in the grand scheme of it all, these things only matter if you let them. So, for the rest of today and hopefully the rest of my life going forward, I am going to work on altering my perspective – age ain’t nothing but a number.  Trite but true, right?

Photo Credit: Pinterest

March 9, 2012

What's the Problem with Pink Legos Anyway?

If I had the option between pink Legos and the original Legos as a little girl, I would’ve gone for the pink. Instead, for my sixth birthday I got a primary-colored kit. To please my penchant for pink, however, the kit was wrapped in pale pink, pastel heart-imprinted wrapping paper. I still fantasize about that wrapping paper. Growing up, I had two older brothers who were rambunctious little men, rough-housing and skateboarding on the half pipe my parents had built for them in our driveway, and otherwise being really, really annoying.

You would’ve thought that having two big brothers around would’ve made me want to participate in their little guy play, but instead I preferred playing house and hosting tea parties. I also enjoyed gender-neutral activities too -- don’t get it twisted. I loved playing with blocks (you know – the wooden ones in different shapes, which just happened to be primary-colored, mind you), building forts, and yes, playing match cars with my first male friend Jay, an adorable Tiny Tim lookalike who made awesome sound effects with his mouth when he smashed the cars together.

I never remember my mother ever forcing the pink, girly girl thing on me; instead, the color pink and most things girly were what I naturally gravitated to. This is not to say that all girls naturally gravitate to traditionally feminine things, however. I think everyone has different instinctive predilections, which are not only cultural, but are biological too, case in point being the little boy in nursery school who loved playing dress up, which included donning a woman’s nightgown and running around the classroom shrieking in delight. That little boy is now a grown man who considers himself gay. I firmly believe that sexual orientation is not a choice, so I would venture to say that his inclination to more “girly” activities was deeply rooted in his biology. That being said, some little boys probably happen to like pink Legos, too.
I say it’s about picking your battles. Pink Legos do not result in devastation to girlhood or boyhood. In fact, girly girls who might not otherwise be drawn to Legos may be more likely to play with them, to create with them, to build with them, simply because they are pink or more femininely themed. Likewise, girly boys may be drawn to the pastel-colored building blocks. And this is not a bad thing.

On some level I understand the concern expressed by feminists who are arguing against the limiting nature of pink Legos, including the Pink Brick Box, which consists of “Creative Cakes” and “Mia’s Puppy House” kits, among others. We don’t want to limit our little girls into thinking that they are only capable of baking cakes and taking care of puppies, but in some cases (I daresay many cases), little girls enjoy doing these things. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that they’ll grow into women thinking that their only viable option is to become a mommy who bakes cakes and takes care of puppies. I certainly didn’t.

We, as an American culture, have evolved considerably in the last 50 years, such that it is okay for little girls who are tomboys to gravitate toward“blue” and little boys who are femme to gravitate toward “pink.” Pink ≠ just Girl anymore, just like Blue ≠ just Boy anymore. The beautiful thing about being a woman (or girl) in 2012 is the choices we have. I thank the first-wave and second-wave feminists for breaking down the great wall for us – for gaining us the right to vote, earning us reproductive rights, and establishing various sexual discrimination laws in the workplace. Overall, life is pretty good for us these days, and I will be the first one to attribute it to the fearless feminists who paved the way before us. Nevertheless, I agree that there is still improvement to be made; there is always improvement to be made, everywhere.

But let’s pick our battles here: Are pink Legos really a battle worth fighting? I happen to think not; there are much, much bigger battles in the world.

March 3, 2012

What's in a Routine?

In this month's issue of Harper's Bazaar, the magazine unveiled a completely revamped and overhauled layout.  And I must say: I have fallen in love.  Be it known that I have a love affair with magazines, in general, but Bazaar earns a special place in my heart for the care and attention it put into its new presentation.  In fact, it even inspired me to redo the layout of my own little blog

I admit that I am a only recent subscriber to the magazine, and while I've been subscribing to numerous other magazines for years, I'm kind of kicking myself for having not included Harper's in the lineup.  What have I missed in all this time? 

One of the great new additions to the magazine, which I learned from having read the "Welcome to the Issue" page, is the List, a new section of the magazine where "The month's object of desire," "so and so's favorite things,"and "Editors' style picks," among others, can be found.  Of greatest interest to me, though, was the very personal "My List," this month which featured designer "Tom Ford in 24 hours." 

Photo Credit: Simon Perry
I enjoy fashion and design as much as the next gal, so I know about Tom Ford and his great contributions to women's fashion, but what really drew me to this piece was the intimate nature of Ford's list, which in this case was outlined in the form of a daily schedule.  Celebrity designer or not, I find people fascinating in general -- how they spend their days, what they love and what they hate, what makes them tick.  People's routines, in particular, are part of what make them intriguing to me.

Herewith, are some interesting tidbits about Tom Ford:

  • He wakes up at 4:30 most every day, except on the very rare occasion that he sleeps in until 7:00.
  • He bathes three times a day, once in the early morning, a second time after he works in the late morning, and a third time around 11 p.m.
  • He doesn't carry a phone because he hates talking on it.
  • He prefers very small dinners with close friends to cocktail parties or large dinner parties.
  • His favorite evenings are those spent at home with his partner of 25 years and his two dogs.
  • He rarely wears any clothes when he's at home.

These were just the highlights, but these very personal details revealed a more compelling side of the designer than I ever knew existed.  We are all just people and yet we all have our unique nuances, particular quotidian habits, ways of leading our lives that somehow separate us from the rest of the tribe.  What are your quotidian habits like?  Are you a list maker like me?  Do you keep the same routine each day, from Monday to Sunday, or do you switch it up according to whether it's the week or weekend?  Do you eat the same Balance bar like I do most every morning for breakfast on the way to work or do you take the time to make a nice leisurely one, complete with eggs and bacon?  (Please tell me you do so I can live vicariously through you.)