Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Third Ward TX.

(I sat down just now to write about a film I saw last year and loved, but I got sidetracked. Eventually I meandered back to the film, which is called Third Ward TX. I just want to say that, if you get bored with me pondering about my ego, scroll down and follow the links to find out about this great movie.)

I've been invited to participate in the American Studies (that's my major) honors program, because I'm one of the top 25 students in my class. The invitation has unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, stirred up a swirl of old feelings.

If I participate, I will write a 60-100 thesis, on a subject I choose, over the course of next year. On top of my regular course load. I may be able to make a film instead of a traditional written thesis. Either way, it'll be a shitload of work --actually the film would probably be quite a bit more work -- but it will be great preparation for grad school, and it will strengthen my application for the MFA program, especially if I make a film.

But I wonder if I love the honor part of it too much? The way it makes me feel: smart, special, etc. I feel like I'm in high school again, jumping at every little bit of recognition. (They told me that holding offices in clubs would enhance my chances for scholarships, so, in my senior year, I ran for and was elected president of art club, thespians, and the honor society. It's not like I had big ideas for what I could accomplish in these clubs, and I don't remember really doing much; I just wanted the titles.)

I can hardly imagine the amount of work the honors thesis would be -- not only do I need to take a full course load both semesters if I want to graduate any time soon, but I won't be able to get through another semester without some kind of job. Make a film on top of all that? Wasn't the idea to finish a B.A. as quickly and easily as possible so I could get on with grad school? And isn't my grad school application already pretty impressive. I've made a feature documentary, not to mention over 25 years of fairly interesting (and applicable) life and work experience. Still, it's hard to say no. I want the prestige.

I was discussing it with J the other night and he interrogated me a bit about "why?" Do I think there's intrinsic value in this type of academic recognition? Yes, but... Is this type of recognition a life-long dream of yours? Yes, but... Ever since I knew what they were I've wanted an Oscar, a Pulitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize, whatever. My attachment to recognition has loosened some -- most significantly around the time that I realized that these desires (more like neuroses) were at the root of a lot of my unhappiness -- but apparently there's still a bit of it lurking somewhere in my soul.

The focus of my life in the last 5 or 6 years has been to unravel this part of my personality. To relax about it. To enjoy being smart instead of needing desperately to be regarded as smart. I want to be honored, but because I've done good work, not because the honor makes me feel for a moment like I'm a good person.

I have a perfect thesis idea. If I decide to do it.

In my Intro to American Studies class, we just read a book called Dawn at My Back: A Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing, by Carroll Parrott Blue. It's a very American Studies-type book: family stories, pop psychology, cultural history, photographs (the author is a photographer, filmmaker, and academic), letters and other ephemera, haphazard and beautifully connected at the same time. I loved it, and it inspired me.

For years, I've wanted to make something with the story of my grandfather. I wrote a song about him a long time ago, called My Family Tree, but I want to do something more in depth. Right after I came out to my family, when I was 20, my father (through my mother) told me about his father who he's certain was homosexual, partly because he disappeared several times when my father was growing up only to be found living with a man, the same man each time.

The story is compelling just on its face, but the background is fascinating too. What must it have been like to be homosexual (and possibly in love?) in the 20s and 30s in the Midwest? The other element of the story, for me, is the question of what gets passed on from father to son, genetically, socially, by example, and through family stories and mythology. (My mother joked to my dad that the homosexuality came from his side of the family, not hers. My father has a lesbian niece too.) Every one of my male friends has a difficult relationship with his father. Mine was painful as I was growing up but has over the years become a source of great pleasure.

But more on the Carroll Parrott Blue book. Though I love the book, the subtitle set me up for disappointment. The author grew up in Independence Heights in Houston, which was originally an incorporated town, a settlement built specifically for freed African Americans after the Civil War (I think) but much of the book takes place in Michigan and Detroit and other places. I wanted more Texas.

I saw a great documentary in SXSW last year, called Third Ward, TX, which is about a neighborhood in that area of Houston. I wrote about it very briefly at the time. I want to see it again. One of the reasons I'm so intrigued by these neighborhoods (urban, black, usually very poor) is that they are the neighborhoods I end up living in. I move in when they're being colonized by artists. Next come the homosexuals, and pretty soon I can't afford to live there once the yuppies arrive and drive up property values and rents. On the corner of my block a gay couple built two beautiful modern houses, one 2 stories high that they live in and another smaller one that they just sold for $650,000. Across the street there's a house under construction that is three stories tall and takes up almost every square inch of its small urban lot. It towers over the tiny houses on either side of it. I love our house, but it's falling apart and we feel like it's only a matter of time before our landlord sells it. The lot is worth a fortune. Meanwhile 3 blocks away, there's a brisk street business in cocaine and low rent prostitutes.

Anyway, Third Ward TX is a wonderful film. It shows that the arrival of artists in a poor downtown neighborhood doesn't have to mean the end is near, but could possibly be a whole new beginning.

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