It’s Not As Easy As It Looks

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Many of us, myself included like to give the impression that we can do it all. This idea that we can work, live and look amazing is drummed into us from an early age. We want to have the perfect body, to be the perfect parent, the perfect employee, the perfect partner the list goes on and on. I think that women in particular prescribe to this notion of perfection. The phrase never let them see you sweat springs to mind. We like to believe that if people think we can do it all than somehow this makes it true. I personally think it’s very damaging and we need to change it. The sooner we realize that it’s impossible to do it all the better off we’ll be.

I am a big fan of the writer and researcher Dr Brene Brown. I always get something new from her work even if I have come across it before. Brene tells a very interesting story about the movie Flashdance that I think best illustrates the notion of perfection and how it is perpetuated. First just let me say that Flashdance is the second highest grossing dance movie of all time. It made a staggering 150 million dollars at the box office. For those of you who are not familiar with Flashdance it’s an 80’s movie about a young women called Alex Owen who is a steel worker by day and an exotic dancer by night, yeah seriously!

She aspires to be a professional dancer but has no formal training. She is of course naturally an amazing dancer. The movie follows her journey as shy tries to work up the courage to apply for a prestigious dance school. Her audition scene at the end of the movie became the most famous part and it was also used in the music video What A Feeling by Irene Cara. The song is featured on the soundtrack and it too became a huge hit.

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In this scene Owens, played by Jennifer Beals performs the most stunning dance routine to a panel of very stern looking judges, who she eventually wins over of course. They are completely wowed by her performance. During the routine she break dances, she does classic ballet, she flies through the air with grace and elegance. All the while looking phenomenal in her black leotard. The reality of that dance sequence is however somewhat different then it looks. Beal’s did not do it all by herself. Even though the audience might think she did. The real truth is it took several people in order to pull it off, not to mention choreographers, editors and all the others it takes to make a movie. French actress and dancer Marine Jahan as well as Gymnast Sharon Shapiro were both brought in as body doubles to complete the sequence. As well as 16-year-old Richard Colón, aka Crazy Legs who performed all the break dancing scenes.

The story goes that Colon was hired to teach Beals the moves. The producers had hoped not to have to use him in the actual movie but the back spins were so complex that in the end they were forced to. Careful editing created the illusion of the perfect final performance. Some people say that Jahan never received the credit she deserved because the filmmakers wanted the audience to believe that it was all Beals. Her name never even appears in the final credits of the film. I’m all in favor of taking your passion and making it happen as the song says but I think we all know it’s not as simple as it looks on the big screen.

Another example of this is in the movie Black Swan. The psychological thriller stars Natalie Portman as Nina the prima ballerina who is on a quest to win the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Portman received an Oscar for her performance in the film but controversy arose surrounding how much of the dancing she really did. Her body double Sarah Lane, who was a trained ballet dancer for more than twenty years claimed she had done most of the dancing which ended up in the final edit. She believes that she really deserves more credit for her work in the movie.

Lane went on to say that Portman’s portrayal of the character was brilliant but most of the shots that made it to the big screen were really of her body and not Portman’s. She said that when she first spoke out the studio called and asked her to stay quite on the matter because they were trying to create an image that Natalie had done something extraordinary. Something impossible, which is to become a professional ballerina in a year and a half. Lane insisted that this cannot be done. The studio hit back saying that although they were grateful for Lane’s hard work it was totally untrue and that Portman had performed most of the dancing by herself. Footage was put up online and then taken down again. Both sides went back and forth over the next few months on the issue and numbers such as 95% and 5% were thrown around in connection to how much dancing these ladies really did. Portman stayed pretty quite during the whole debate.

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I cannot begin to tell you how depressing I find it that we are debating whether or not Portman did 5% or 95% of the ballet in this movie. The fact is it would still be really impressive if she had even managed to do 1% of the dancing having only studied ballet for such a short time. We should be able to congratulate both of these women for what they contributed to the movie but instead we choose to dissect them. Ironically one of the major themes of the movie is the never ending search for perfection and how destructive it can be. Perhaps they should all read the script again.

Now before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I too am having a go at these two actresses or the movies they’re in, I assure you I’m not. I really don’t care what percentage they did or how many shots their in. I do however think that these stories are a powerful metaphor for the pressure we feel to do it all. The truth is it’s never really as easy as it looks. Sometimes we do need a bit of help because we are just one person. Believe me when I tell you there is no one in the world who would like to think we can do it all on our own more than me but we can’t. Unfortunately there is no body double at the ready to come in and take over for us. No one who can do all the hard parts for us. Therefore we must accept that we have to do them imperfectly or not at all. There are no outtakes or dress rehearsals and we can’t edit out the parts of our lives that we don’t want other people to see. Most of us are not born knowing all the steps. There are many complicated metaphorical back spins that we have to contend with. Our lives don’t look seamless or polished and most of the time neither do we. So I’m just suggesting we all give each other a break, admit the truth and carry on living our messy lives. Who’s with me?

 

The Kabul Zoo

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I recently came across a story in a book called The Taliban Shuffle (now a major motion picture starring Tina Fey) about the Kabul Zoo and its most famous resident Marjan the lion. As news circulated yesterday of yet another Taliban bomb attack in Afghanistan claiming the lives of 64 people and injuring more than 300 I remembered this story once again.  Marjan which means coral or precious stone in Persian, was given to the Kabul Zoo by the Germans along with a lioness called Chucha in 1978 . He was donated in order to quite rumors of a Soviet invasion. Of course within a year the Soviets did invade Afghanistan and the zoo, like all the other sites in Kabul suffered the consequences.

Kabul, Afghanistans capital City was captured in 1992 by Jihadi groups and the Government lost control. As soon as the Russians left Afghanistan warlords moved in and a terrible civil war broke out. They began shelling and sending rockets into Kabul, as a result the walls of the zoo came tumbling down. The medical unit was destroyed making it impossible to treat any of the animals. Disease and hunger spread like wild-fire. Although many of the animals were eaten or died the fledgling zoo somehow remained open.

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In its heyday the zoo was home to more than 700 animals but the arrival of the soldiers sparked trouble for its residents. When they weren’t fighting the bored soldiers would beat or throw rocks at the animals for sport.  They even shot an elephant 40 times just to see how many bullets it would take to kill him. Through all the chaos Marjan and Chucha remained relatively unscathed. Until one afternoon in March of 1995 when one of the Pashtun fighters, who was showing off to his friend jumped into the lions cage and pretended to mate with the lioness. She did not react but Marjan attacked him instantly biting off his arm. The man later died as a result of the injuries. The following day his brother returned seeking his revenge and threw a hand grenade into the lions cage. Marjan sustained serious injuries in the blast. He emerged alive but blind in one eye and completely deaf. Despite several surgeries to try and save it, he also lost part of his mouth and had to have all of his teeth removed.

While Marjan was left wounded and permanently scared the Taliban continued to tighten its grip on Afghanistan. They demanded that Afghans live under their rule and their destorted definition of Islam. Women were not allowed to go outside unless they were covered up with a burka or accompanied by a male escort.  Television, music and gambling were all banned. Even the zoo’s director had to prove to the Taliban that keeping animals did not violate Islam in order to stay open. Miraculously the zoo and Marjan continued to survive but only barely.

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After the twin towers came down as a result of terrorist attacks at the hands of the Taliban in 2001 the group fled Afghanistan leaving only destruction behind them. All that remained of the Kabul Zoo was a few vultures, owls, wolves, one bear and of course Marjan. At the same time as U.S. Troops were moving into Afghanistan a picture of the wounded lions face was making its way around the globe. For some reason his portrait tugged at people’s heart-strings and he became an instant celebrity. The proud lion represented all of the pain and suffering that had been inflicted on the war-torn country over the years. He may have been bruised and battered but he was still standing and this was a message of hope to many. He was now a living embodiment of Afghanistan and a sign that it could survive in spite of all it had endured.

World Animal Protection was called in to come to Marjans aid and a ton of money was raised to help him recover. Heaters and ramps were installed to make it more comfortable and easier for him to get around. Unfortunately this money could not rescue Marjan from old age and he died the following January. Marjan was given both a private and public burial ceremony at the zoo. Crowds along with the worlds media gathered together to bid farewell to Afghanistan’s king of the jungle. A 400 pound bronze statue of Marjan, made by an American architect, was erected at the front of the Kabul Zoo. A fitting tribute to the lion who will always be remembered as a symbol of resilience and recovery to the Afghan people.

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It might seem strange to some people, that a fierce animal like Marjan could capture the hearts of so many but if you think about it this lion survived a Soviet invasion, a Mujahideen rocket launch, a grenade attack, American air strikes and cruelty at the hands of the Taliban. In that respect it is easy to see why he has inspired millions. Afghans had been suppressed by war and violence for decades and they needed someone or something to look to for hope. Marjan was proof that against all odds it is possible to survive.

This latest bombing in Afghanistan reminds us that the road to recovery is long and not in the least bit straight forward. Each attack leaves behind its own set of scars that need time to heal. The Kabul Zoo mirrors the journey taken by its country. There has been many ups and downs and there is likely to be more but as of today the Kabul zoo is still open. It currently has around 280 animals and has become a refuge for visitors. It has survived and so will Afghanistan.

There are still a lot problems to contend with of course but there has been a vast improvement since 2001. Progress is slow but it goes on. Marjan continues to represent hope in Afghanistan. We all need symbols in order to add meaning to our lives because so often don’t make sense to us. If we can give them meaning then we can transform the suffering and start to heal. They help share our burdens and give us strength. I hope the memory of Marjan can continue to do that for Afghanistan during this time.

 

 

 

The Donald Trump Effect

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I have always found American politics fascinating. It’s like theatre on a giant stage. This time around though the world has watched in wonder as the American election has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Perhaps the best way to describe it is like a Shakespearean tragic comedy. It can be classed as neither because it has huge elements of both. In the beginning I think we all viewed Donald Trump as an amusing caricature with bad hair who would be entertaining to watch for a while. After all the election process goes on for so long why not get some amusement out of it. No one really believed that he would still be in the race at this point, let alone be in with a real chance of winning the Republican nomination but alas it really is happening.

As the weeks rolled on the jokes got less funny and the threats got more real. In the course of his candidacy Trump has managed to offend Women, Mexicans, People with disabilities and Muslims to name a few. Everyday the list seems to get longer. His rallies have become a breeding ground for violent and racist behavior.  This has of course brought him more attention in the media and has in turn made him very popular. It also helps that the other Republican nominees aren’t very credible. There is no doubt that it’s a fascinating circus and people seem to be enjoying the show but at what point do we all have to get serious about the business of electing a real president?

Perhaps the reason for Trump’s popularity is the fact that he doesn’t seem to play by the same rules as the other candidates. In a world where everyone is getting more and more anti-establishment perhaps Trump is an attractive prospect. His campaign is like no other we have seen before. His team appear to have very little political experience between them. The campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski ran and lost Bob Smith’s Senate campaign in 2002, bringing to an end his short time within the GOP establishment. When asked about Lewandowski those closest to the Trump campaign say that what he lacks in credentials he makes up for in ambition and ruthlessness. Katrina Pierson, Trumps spokeswoman used to support Obama but she is now a tea party activist. Other members of the team have never even been involved in politics before now. Although most of them have worked with Trump on his various business ventures over the years.

Trump has a core team of about a dozen members. According to the Federal Election Commission he has a total of 94 people on his payroll nationwide, as opposed to Hillary Clinton who has a staggering 765 members on her team. It might not surprise anyone to hear that Trump employs no media coaches or speech writers. He writes all his own speeches (and Tweets) by himself. Other than the slogan “Make America Great Again” which he borrowed from Ronald Reagan, he has spent very little money on advertising. The whole thing seems to operate like a business rather than a political campaign. He says and does whatever is necessary to win. He is certainly not concerned with diplomacy or political correctness. Many believe that is the key to Trump’s success. Nowadays everyone is encouraged to mind their P’s and Q’s but Donald Trump ignores these rules and many find it to be a breath of fresh air. They say he speaks his mind but his mind, does seem to change quite a bit. So much so that he appears to be making it up as he goes along. It is estimated that on certain issues such as foreign policy the Trump campaign has changed their stance not once, not twice but more than half a dozen times over the course of the campaign. The only thing he is clear on it seems is that he wants to build a wall to keep foreigners out of the U.S. Strangely enough Trump says this makes him a unifier but how that works is again unclear.

Violent scenes have become more and more frequent at Trump rallies. He riles up the audience by promising them he is going to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and he is going to ban Muslims. He even offered to pay the legal fees for one voter who punched a black man in the face. He never talks about policy much less how he is going to, as he puts it make America great again but they don’t seem to mind. His aggressive approach keeps them coming back time and time again. His speeches read like slogans on a bumper sticker and the crowd loves it. He has unearthed a racism that lurked in the dark corners of American culture. Figures show that Trump appeals to a very poor, uneducated and mostly male demographic. They see him as a “self-made” billionaire and they admire him for it but in truth Trump isn’t self made at all. He grew up very wealthy and his father even gave him what he calls “a small business loan” of one million dollars when he was starting out. He has also declared bankruptcy a number of times over the years. In fact it is unclear just how much Donald Trump is actually worth because he keeps changing his mind on that also. It seems he is a far cry from the “every man” that his fans believe him to be.

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It is fair to say however that not everyone loves Donald Trump. Like I said he has managed to offend a lot of the electorate since his unconventional journey to the White House began. He has defiantly lost the Latino vote due to his offensive comments calling them rapists and murderers and then there was his recent remarks on abortion have done him no favors either. The Republican party are in full panic mode and they claim that they will not accept Trump as their parties nominee. Experts say that even if Trump does win the nomination he cannot win the election without the support of Latinos, Women and the Republican party. Of course Trump is fighting this notion by rounding up his legion of fans and encouraging them to revolt if he doesn’t win. This suggests there will be more violence in the weeks to come.

Many famous people have come out against the Donald trying to convince voters that he is not the right choice for president. Founder of the popular blog Humans of New York Brandon Stanton, who usually avoids turning the spotlight on himself was one of those people. He went so far as to post an open letter to Donald Trump online listing his crimes against humanity and calling him hateful. In just eight hours it became the most shared post in the history of Facebook so apparently there are those who agree with this sentiment.

I find it interesting that two of the most popular candidates are Donald Trump, who is now on the far right and Bernie Sanders who couldn’t be more left if he wore a t-shirt with a giant cannabis leaf on it. They are as different as the two political symbols of the donkey and the elephant and yet they are equally popular with voters. The political landscape in my own country isn’t all that awe inspiring at the moment either I assure you but I do wonder how Americans have ended up on such opposite sides and who will be able to bridge the enormous gap. Whatever the result it’s clear that this election will not only be historic it will be truly memorable. Lets hope its for the right reasons.

 

Harper Lee 1926-2016

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As anyone who has read my blog before will know Harper Lee is one of my greatest idols. That is probably why it has taken me more than a month after her passing to write my own tribute to her. It is difficult to write about someone who lets face it, would have written it much better herself but anyway here goes. On the 19th of February last the world lost a true legend. Nelle Harper Lee died at the age of 89. She was born in Monroeville, Alabama in 1926. She moved to New York in the 1950’s and began working as a ticket agent for a local airline. As well as working other jobs, Lee always pursued her passion for writing. She never gave up on her dream of becoming a writer. Although she had moved from Alabama, the little town of Monroeville and the people of her childhood never really left her. The first manuscript she submitted to a publisher was called “Go Set a Watchman“.  It was set in the fictional town of Maycomb, a town not unlike the one where Lee herself grew up. After years of rewriting and editing the manuscript it finally evolved into her first novel “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The book was published in 1960 to rave reviews. In 1961 Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the novel was also adapted into a major motion picture staring Gregory Peck. Mockingbird is the story of a black man called Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman in a small town in Alabama in the 1930’s.

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Lee drew from a number of cases that had occurred during the course of her own childhood. She knew of these cases because her father was a lawyer and she had grown up hearing the stories time and time again. She was also extremely aware of the racial tension that existed at the time. One of her most famous characters Atticus Finch was loosely based on her own father. Even though she denied it time and time again there was no denying the striking similarities between her characters and the people from her childhood. Mockingbird was an insight into these troubling times told through the eyes of a child. Its simplicity was in truth its genius. The novel carried with it a message of hope and tolerance. It was an opportunity for the American people to take a long hard look at their society and their relationship to the issue of race. It made readers realise that although we might not all look the same or come from the same place, human beings are at their core, not all that different from each other. “To Kill A Mockingbird” perched itself in the hearts and minds of a nation and helped them understand each other a little more clearly. It took the innocence of a child’s voice to deliver such an important message. The combination of small town charm mixed with invariable truths proved to be a winning combination. Lee wanted to write a book that wouldn’t tell readers what to think, instead it would make them think for themselves, “To Kill A Mockingbird” did just that.

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The success of Mockingbird came as such a shock to Lee that she retreated back to her home town in Alabama. Readers waited with bated breath for her next book but it never materialised. She did not enjoy the lime light nor did she appreciate the intrusion that fame brought with it. She withdrew from the glare of the media spotlight and lived a quite life back in Monroeville with no interruptions from the outside world. Years passed and most people had given up hope, it seemed that Lee would never publish again. Then more than 50 years later another manuscript was discovered. It was called “Go Set A Watchman”. This one was written before her first novel. It turned out to be the original manuscript that Lee had presented to the publishers some fifty years earlier. It revisits the same characters years after the events in Mockingbird. It was published in 2015 but this time due to the changes made to many of her best-loved characters, most especially Atticus Finch the reaction was not quite as positive. Some readers were outraged and felt as though their beloved story had been tarnished forever. In spite of the mixed feelings and suspicion surrounding the release of Watchman Lee remained one of the most treasured American writers of her time.

Mockingbird has sold more than thirty million copies and has been translated into more than forty languages. It is still one of the most successful and celebrated books of all time. It became part of many young people’s school curriculum including my own, helping to change attitudes and shape young minds. At the heart of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a young girl who is desperately trying to understand the world around her. I was once a young girl struggling to do the same and Lee’s book was of great comfort to me. Like any good story it not only instructs but delights its readers. It helped not only Scout to see things more clearly but it also helped me and millions of others around the world. It is a simple and yet poignant examination of humanity and what could be possible if we all just treated each other a little better.

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Some people say that Lee’s novel is too innocent, simplistic or quaint for the modern world with its descriptions of small town life. As I look around at a world where racism is ever prevalent and terrorist attacks have become a daily topic of conversation I firmly disagree with this assessment. Her story might be simple but her ideas are big. After all the notion that we can all do a little better if we just try to understand each other a bit more is I believe, more important now than ever. Lee was not afraid to ask the all important questions and allow the reader to search within themselves for the answers.

When I heard the news about Lee’s passing I was genuinely saddened, as though a true friend had died. The more I read the vast number of tributes online I began to realise that I wasn’t the only one who felt that sense of loss. I suppose that’s the true test of a great writer. Lee explained it best when she said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”  Until I heard the news I did not fully realise what she meant to me. So I suppose this is my way of saying thank you. She will always be remembered in the pages of her book. I hope she knows what a rare gift it really is.

 

 

 

David Bowie 1947-2016

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On Monday morning I awoke to the sad news of David Bowie’s passing. One of my friends summed it up appropriately on her Facebook page by saying she thought he would go on forever. I think perhaps we all did. Unfortunately it was true, Bowie passed away on Sunday evening after an 18 month battle with cancer. He had turned 69 just three days before. Since then countless tributes have been flowing in for the singer and pop icon.

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David Robert Jones was born in Brixton on January 8th 1947 to a working class family. His desire to create was evident from an early age. He was a born artist. He had very distinct features, made even more so due to a fight he had at school. He got into a tussle with a mate over a girl and his friend punched him in the face. As a result one of Bowie’s eyes was permanently dilated. School friend George Underwood who remained close to Bowie, said that David later thanked him for giving him that interplanetary look that audiences were so attracted too. He later changed his name to David Bowie so as not to be confused with Monkees frontman Davy Jones.

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Bowie went on to reach global fame and inhabited a wide range of ambiguous characters including his most famous Ziggy Stardust. This androgynous, bisexual character enthralled fans and secured his place in rock and roll history. He was constantly reinventing himself and he never feared pushing the boundaries of gender and sexuality. Bowie often used make-up and clothes as a way of expressing himself. He embraced difference instead of shying away from it. He became a style icon as well as a pop star. He was very subversive and rebellious. He wanted to shock the mainstream to make them sit up and pay attention. Looking back at some of his performances changes the perspective on so-called shocking performances of my own generation. They look relatively tame by comparison.

“We can be Heroes, just for one day” Heroes

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Bowie’s many looks became as synonymous with him as his music. He did however have the talent to back up his flamboyant personality and showmanship. He was a great song writer, singer, actor and producer. He collaborated with many famous stars including Iggy Pop and Queen. His partnership with Queen resulted in one of their most famous and best-loved hits “Under Pressure”.  Bowie also gave us such classics as Starman, Heroes, Changes, Life on Mars, Lets Dance, Space Oddity and Ashes to Ashes which was one of the most expensive music videos of its time. Bowie was a very prolific musician. Over all he made an impressive 27 studio albums. Most of these were made during the 1970’s at the height of his fame.

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His last album, Blackstar was released just days before he died on his 69th Birthday. If we listen to the tracks on this album now it is clear that Bowie was very aware that he had little time left. Even though he was dying he still wanted to create and make art for his fans to enjoy. Music wasn’t his only love he also enjoyed art and technology. He had a keen interest in the internet from early on and often used it to encourage and promote new, young artists. Unlike many others Bowie welcomed change, he did not fear it.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now.” Lazarus

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Bowie is often compared to a chameleon, I too would have probably used this image to describe him but when this was put to Bowie himself he said that a chameleon changes his skin to fit into his environment. He believed that he had done the exact opposite. So I suppose what he really did was change himself to better fit his own skin. As he grew and evolved he was not afraid to adopt his image accordingly. I think we can all agree that it’s much harder to feel good in our own skin than it is to fit into our surroundings. Bowie seemed to do this with ease and confidence. The New Yorker Journalist Hilton Als said it best, Bowie was an “outsider who made different kids feel like dancing in that difference”. Sadly the Starman has returned to the sky and has left it up to us not to blow it. I can’t help feeling sad when I think of a world without him in it. It will certainly have less colour that’s for sure. Lets hope he left just a little bit of his originality behind for the rest of us.