Frontier Psychiatrist

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I’m not prepared to make any sort of official election statement on behalf of FP, nor will I attempt to do so. Despite regularly sharing our ideas on topics as diverse as punk rock existentialism to radical anti-communist visual artists to Ben Affleck’s beard to Jeopardy heartthrobs to unloved vegetables—and just about everything in between—we tend to keep away from political statements, and that’s stance worth preserving as much as we can. That being said, several takeaways from Tuesday’s results excite me personally as an open-minded young citizen, a writer and a media professional.

As a member of the highly sought after and discussed 18 to 29 year old voter bracket, it’s easy to get swept up in the raucous nature of the presidential election. The rising trend in turnouts for the under-30 crowd (voters under 30 turned out in greater numbers than senior citizens this year, and the percentage of the eligible voters under 30 is up 15 points since the 2000 election) is linked in some way to the rise of social media and user-generated content. From way back to the primaries, it was clear that our age group has appropriated new media’s basic tenant of “speak if you want to be heard” beyond pithy tweets and plastering Romney’s face onto a trapper keeper. Thanks to our own volition (and the platforms on which we post), we are changing the world.

This is a Big Fucking Deal.

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I hear yoga works for some people.  But for me, when real life gets to be too much, I turn to baking to literally sweeten my mood.  There’s something about the mathematical straightforwardness of it that allows my mind to drift from hurricanes and power outages, as it were, to the wonderful world of teaspoons and tablespoons and parchment paper (oh my!).  I will not dwell on the circumstances of Superstorm Sandy, as I recognize fully well that I have not suffered as deeply as many, but that bitch of a storm did throw me out of my apartment for several nights.  My husband and I soon escaped to the Upper West Side, a bubble within Manhattan virtually untouched by the storm.  Life went on as normal there, but I was too distracted and angsty to sit still and “work from home.”  The tragedy was unrelenting, and my reading yet another Gothamist article would do no good. Read the rest of this entry »

Ben Affleck, Argo, Iran, Movies

Bearded Boston Bro Ben Affleck in “Argo”

At first glance, Argo seems like a decently entertaining movie tailor-made for Oscar: Ben Affleck, a high-profile, left-leaning director makes a movie with an all-star cast about a tumultuous period in U.S.-Iran relations (ring any bells?) about an amazing story that was only declassified during President Clinton’s administration. The brilliance of Argo, however, lies in its unpretentious self-assurance as a Hollywood movie about a fake Hollywood movie.

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[The third is a series of essays from China, New York, and Israel]

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Hurricane Sandy hit and shut down New York before we had a chance to publish the following article about my trip to the city in mid-October. Since then, I’ve been witness to a barrage of coverage about the devastation, from photos to death totals, and it seems insensitive to run a piece about my trip without comment on the storm and its aftermath. The majority of what I’ve seen has been social media updates from friends, family, and strangers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Everyone I know is all right save for power outages, but the comparisons to an apocalyptic Hollywood movie scene don’t seem unwarranted. My original piece was intended to be humorous, as one can’t exist in New York without a sense of humor. The city isn’t perfect, but it is fantastic; both its faults and strengths are as worth exploring as they are in my hometown, Chicago. One of the city’s strengths is most certainly the sense that despite its diversity, it is in fact a unified city, an idea I was skeptical about originally. The music scene has come together with benefit shows, my twitter feed is full of locals, celebs, and companies tweeting simple ways to help hurricane victims, and places offering their wifi and space for people to do their work. The amount of people affected by this disaster in such a small area is overwhelming; the amount of these same people coming together to help is phenomenal.

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Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her, Drown, Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her

After missing Junot Diaz’s performance at Book Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, I consoled myself by reflecting on his new short story collection. Before I cracked the spine, the odds were long that Diaz could meet the high standard of his debut collection Drown, or his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or his recent MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, which even super fans conceded was belated and perhaps gratuitous. And after being inspired by Drown to study fiction writing in graduate school, teaching the book for years to high school and college students in literature and creative writing classes, and raving about Diaz to anyone who would listen, the new book felt like a referendum on  my credibility as a writer, teacher, and human being. I hesitated for several weeks before buying the book, rationalizing that if I didn’t read it, I wouldn’t be disappointed. Fortunately, Diaz delivered. Like its predecessors, This is How You Lose Her is technically dazzling, culturally challenging, and emotionally devastating.  Line by line, page by page, story by story, it is a book that breaks and mends your heart.

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Junot Diaz, BookCourt, This is How You Lose Her

Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz is perhaps the best fiction writer in America, having won the hearts and minds of readers over nearly two decades with his three books: the short story collection Drown, the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and his new story collection This is How You Lose Her, a series of linked short stories, mostly about infidelity, mostly narrated by Diaz’s ghetto geek alter ego Yunior, and set in the three places the author has called home: the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, and Boston. The book features Diaz’s now signature style of deceptively simple prose that mixes lofty language and street talk, English and Spanish, and high and low culture. As if all that weren’t enough, Diaz recently won a MacArthur Foundation Award, netting him half a million dollars and the label of genius.

On Tuesday night, Diaz regaled a packed house at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, one of the city’s finest independent bookstores. Rather than opening with a reading, he began by taking questions from the audience. Writer, librarian, and Diaz fan Krissa Corbett Cavouras was on hand to record the dialogue. Disclaimer: the following was transcribed on a smartphone, may contain slight inaccuracies, and has been lightly edited for clarity. Also, there are a lot of swear words.

On creative writing programs (MFAs):

“Creative writing programs are the best way to get young people into a hundred thousand dollars of debt. I mean, is there any connection between the proliferation of creative writing programs and the collapse of people actually reading any of these books, and the collapse of bookstores? And how about what this does, it creates one-hit novelists, where you get one shot against the bottom line. You don’t get a second chance.”

“Creative writing programs have become the lottery machine for the intellectual set. Young writers should wait until, I don’t know, 27? What’s the hurry? Deep down in your heart if you’re serious about being artists, it doesn’t matter if the work comes early or late. It’s the ones who are in a rush who aren’t actually artists; they just want approval.”

“Do all the wrong things, make a ton of mistakes in your life; you’ll find that you actually bring news from the world to your art. Don’t graduate from college and go straight to an MFA. It’s a pyramid scheme and it doesn’t necessarily improve your art.”

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I’ve known photographer Dan Farnum since pre-school in Saginaw, Michigan. We grew up sharing many of the same experiences, and in college we both turned to artistic pursuits. And although we hadn’t always remained super close throughout the years, we’ve kept in touch, mostly meeting up with friends back in town for the holidays. After seeing his photographs on his website, I realized that he was wrestling with many of the same issues that I was in my poetry: the American experience, landscape, and culture, especially as viewed through the lens of our hometown, which is poor and violent and stands in the shadow of a failed auto industry.

In his most recent series Young Blood Dan turns his eye toward Michigan’s urban youth. Over the years, he has shown his work in exhibitions and galleries in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and BFA from the University of Michigan, and is now a professor of photography at the University of Missouri. Recently, I caught up with him to discuss Michigan, skateboarding, and the art of photographing strangers.

Frontier Psychiatrist: Your Young Blood series features portraits of Michigan’s urban youth. Where did the idea come from?

Dan Farnum: As you know, I was born and raised in Saginaw and have personally witnessed how the economy affected family and friends. So I have an investment in this region that I feel allows me to view the location in a more intimate manner. I focus on youth in particular in this region since they are the primary people who either have the ability to change urban communities or perpetuate the problems. Something positive that is happening in some urban neighborhoods is community farming and gardening. On the other hand, my hometown is known as having the most violent crimes (per capita) in the country for almost a decade. Much of the crime is associated with young people.

My background as a skateboarder is also an influence. I used to skate in several of the places I now photograph. I feel as though I am documenting a personal history as well as making a broader cultural statement. There is a lack of supervision in these kinds of locations that is great for skateboarding, but tends to also facilitate mischief. My teenage experiences serve as a common thread to open discussions with many of my subjects. This ability to bond with people helps them feel more comfortable while I take their portrait.

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Sons of Dionysus


A Transmedia Novel of Myth, Mirth, and the Magical Excess of Youth.