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Alex Carnevale
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Mia Nguyen
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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Thursday
Aug112011

In Which Lorraine Hansberry Did Not Really Exist

Sunshine

by ALEX CARNEVALE

She was devoted to the human race, but she was not romantic about it.

-James Baldwin

What to do with Lorraine Hansberry? The playwright died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. She was terribly afraid of hospitals, and it did not help that her sickness came on fast. She designated her Jewish ex-husband Robert Nemiroff as her literary executor and in 1969 he came out with a play of her letters, speeches and dramas titled To Be Young, Gifted and Black. He pushed her work endlessly, even writing the book for Raisin, the musical based on her earth-shattering work A Raisin in the Sun. Nowhere in this 265-page celebration of her life does he hazard to mention that Lorraine was gay.

Nemiroff died in 1991. He divorced Hansberry three years before her death, after which she began living an openly lesbian existence in Greenwich Village. In some ways, he did understand her work; he certainly admired it. In others, she could not have chosen a worse inheritor of her legacy. Her peers and her enemies were already confused by Lorraine in her lifetime, and turning A Raisin in the Sun and her underappreciated play about white intellectuals and black people The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window into loud musicals diluted the works. He wanted to keep her ideas alive; he smothered them.

The reaction to A Raisin in the Sun when it appeared in 1959 surprised a lot of people. Unlike most fictive depictions of blacks, the story took place in the here and now. The play was based on the real life events endured by her trailblazing father, who was two things that shocked whites in the south side of Chicago: he was a successful African-American businessman, and he was a Republican. Carl Hansberry believed strongly in the importance of private enterprise, and his idea to split up white houses and multiply them into smaller black residences changed the city he lived in. With the NAACP, he fought restrictive housing laws that discriminated against blacks, and won.

Her letters to the gay rights publication The Ladder fit her father's mission. The journal promoted assimilation, not separation from heteros. It attacked the lesbian writer Marijane Meaker for her pulpy lesbian romances, which they viewed as unfair and unsympathetic portrayals of women. Lesbians had few meeting places in those days; editorials in major newspapers opined that women should not even wear pants. The Ladder was a safe space for Hansberry to quietly come out, even though her only byline was her initials and other letters were anonymous.

She wrote to the fledgling lesbian journal, "I'm glad as heck that you exist. You are obviously serious people and I feel that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations. Our problems, our experiences as women are profoundly unique as compared to the other half of the human race."

Her education had stalled at the University of Wisconsin. In his celebration of her life, Nemiroff dedicates several chapters to this period, wistfully recalling for his former wife that except for the snow, "in every other way college was a bust." He describes her thrilling rush at the sound of African drums, at her connection to a homeland several generations in the past.

It's all very pat, until he gives things over to Lorraine, who remembers not this connection to Africa, but a Frank Lloyd Wright lecture: "he attacked almost everything - and, foremost among them, the building he was standing in for its violation of the organic principles of architecture; he attacked babbitry and the nature of education saying we put in so many fine plums and get out so many fine prunes. Everyone laughed - the faculty nervously I guess; but the students cheered. I left the University shortly after to pursue an education of another kind."

When A Raisin in the Sun took the American theatrical world by storm, she was 29. This is constantly emphasized by her biographers, as though she were not already an artist working at the peak of her powers. Her age became just another excuse to invalidate her art. James Baldwin recalled holding her purse as she signed autographs until her hand got tired. For those months, her phone never stopped ringing off the hook.

A Raisin in the Sun has been successful everywhere it has appeared. It is the only play by an African-American playwright routinely read as part of high school and college curriculums. An ABC adapation of the play in 2008 starring P. Diddy and Phylicia Rashad drew record ratings. That network, and every other network, never took the hint. Sure, a surprisingly large audience was interested in watching African-Americans in a serious drama, but what did that matter when they were completely conditioned to having white writers write black comedies?

But then, an artist of color is always writing outside of her time. Lorraine's impact on the African-American playwrights that would follow in her footsteps is evident in every line written by the likes of Suzan-Lori Parks and Anna Deavere-Smith. Writing as she was in the early 1960s she felt completely alone, separated by sexual preference and gender from various movements that should have embraced both her and her work.

Nemiroff seems to have been captivated by her charm; it is evident in every utterly photogenic portrait taken of Lorraine. Even his title for his dramatic eulogy, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, is somehow a slight on the woman, who he at one point calls "spoiled", describing her body as "straight, perfectly molded, eager and sure in its movements...one could only think of youth." Some kind of prize?

He could not see her for what she was, so he tried to view her the way others did. The marriage cannot have been much. On Easter 1962, she wrote, proto-blogging:

Yesterday I was alone. And so, I did some work; I don't really remember what. And then in a fit of self-sufficiency went shopping in the supermarket and bought food: liver, steak, chops. I rather knew the kind of weekend that was coming. But was not depressed... The being alone is better. That is what one has to learn ultimately. It is really is better to be alone; it is horrible - but it is better.

Tonight worked. Productively. But can't get excited about any accomplishment tonight.

Worst of all, I am ashamed of being alone. Or is it my loneliness that I am ashamed of? I have closed the shutters so that no one can see. Me. Alone. Sitting at the typewriter on Easter Eve; brooding; alone. Upstairs I will keep the drapes drawn. No one must know these hurts. Why? I shall wash my hair. It is helping my skin. I shall be beautiful this time next year: long hair and clear skin. And I shall still be lonely. On Easter eve. At the typewriter...

I wish I could have known her better.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

America As Seen Through
the Eye of the TV Tube

by LORRAINE HANSBERRY

1. Most people who work for a living (and they are few) are executives and/or work in some kind of office.

2. Sex is the basis of all psychological, economic, political, historical, social - in fact, known, problems of man.

3. Sex is very bad.

4. Sex is very good and the solution to all psychological, economic, political, historical, social, in fact, known problems of man.

5. The present social order is here forever and this is the best of all possible worlds.

6. The present social order is here forever and this is the worst of all possible worlds.

7. The present social order is all in the mind.

8. Women are idiots.

9. Negroes do not exist...

"Desire" - Mates of State (mp3)

"At Least I Have You" - Mates of State (mp3)

"Basement Money" - Mates of State (mp3)

Wednesday
Aug102011

In Which The World Just Seems To Be On Wheels

Past the Last Locust Tree

I am learning something myself — I don’t know exactly what it is — but if I did — if I could put it clearly into form it would cure you

It is easy to fall in love with the paintings of Georgia Totto O'Keeffe, but it is even easier to embrace her private correspondence. She was just the best. Her psychological insights were astonishing. She knew how to say — everything, knew how to spin an event into something more important than it was, less important than it was, put it outside of herself, bury it within. In her lifetime, she became as well known for her personality as for her paintings which so captivated and divided the art world upon their first appearance in the 1920s. O'Keeffe died in 1986 at the eight of 98.

She met her friend Anita Pollitzer at Columbia University. Anita called her "Pat" and would eventually introduce her to future husband Alfred Stieglitz.

To Anita Pollitzer

Canyon, Texas
11 September 1916

Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were rioting all through the hotness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it.

But some way or other I didn't seem to like the redness much so after I mailed the letters I walked home — and kept on walking —

The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it —.

I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon —

Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —

I wondered what you are doing —

It is absurd the way I love this country — Then when I came back — it was funny — roads just shoot across blocks anywhere — all the houses looked alike — and I almost got lost — I had to laugh at myself — I couldnt tell which house was home —

I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful —

Pat.

grey hills, 1942

O'Keeffe and the American writer Sherwood Anderson both shared a Midwestern background. He was a close friend of Stieglitz and it was his encounter with Georgia's work that inspired him to paint for the first time in his life.

To Sherwood Anderson

Lake George
1 August 1923

Dear Sherwood Anderson:

This morning I saw an envelope on the table Stieglitz addressed to you — Ive wanted so often to write you — two things in particular to tell you — but I do not write — I do not write to anyone — maybe I do not like telling myself to people — and writing means that.

First I wanted to tell you — way back in the winter that I liked your "Many Marriages" — and that what others have said about it amused me much — I realize when I hear others speak of it that I do not seem to read the way they do — I seem to — like — or discard — for no particular reason excepting that it is inevitable at the moment. — At the time I read it I saw no particular reason why I should write you that I liked it — because I do not consider my liking — or disliking of any particular consequence to anyone but myself — And knowing you were trying to work I felt that opinions on what was past for you would probably be like just so much rubbish — in your way for the clear thing ahead — And when I think of you — I think of you rather often — it is always with the wish — a real wish — that the work is going well — that nothing interferes —

I think of you often because the few times you came to us were fine — like fine days in the mountains — fine to remember — clear sparkling and lots of air — fine air

And the letters you have written Stieglitz the last few months have helped much over difficult days — The spring has been terrible and when we got here he was just a little heap of misery — sleepless — with eyes — ears — nose — arm — feet — ankles — intestines — all taking their turn at deviling him — one after the other — and it is only the last few days that he is beginning to be himself again — I had almost given up hope — It was rather difficult — in a way he is amazingly tough but at the same time is the most sensitive thing I have ever seen — The winter had been very hard on him — The nerves seemed tied up so tight that they wouldnt unwind — So you can see why I appreciated your letters — maybe more than he did — because of what they gave him — I dont remember now what you wrote — I only remember that they made me feel that you feel something of what I know he is — that it means much to you in your life — adds much to your life — and a real love for him seemed to have grown from it

And in his misery he was very sad — and I guess I had grown pretty sad and forlorn feeling too — so your voice was kind to hear out of faraway and I want to tell you that it meant much — Thanks

Sincerely

Georgia O'Keeffe

I can only write you this now because things are better.

The artist Russell Vernon Hunter had seen Georgia's painting of a cockscomb and included it in a letter to her.

to Russell Vernon Hunter

New York
Spring 1932

My dear Vernon Hunter

Your letter gives me such a vivid picture of some thing I love in space — love almost as passionately as I can love a person — that I am almost tempted to pack my little bag and go — but I will not go to it right this morning — No matter how much I love it — There is some thing in me that must finish jobs once started — when I can —.

So I am here — and what you write of me is there

The cockscomb is here too — I put it in much cold water and it came to life from a kind of flatness it had in the box when I opened it — tho it was very beautiful as it lay in the box a bit wilted when I opened it —. I love it — Thank you.

I must confess to you — that I even have the desire to go into old Mexico — that I would have gone — undoubtedly — if it were only myself that I considered — You are wise — so wise — in staying in your own country that you know and love — I am divided between my man and a life with him — and some thing of the outdoors — of your world — that is in my blood — and that I know I will never get rid of — I have to get along with my divided self the best way I can —.

So give my greetings to the sun and the sky — and the wind — and the dry never ending land

—Sincerely

Georgia O'Keeffe

pelvis with shadows and the moon, 1945

Georgia's letters to the celebrated African-American poet Jean Toomer are among her most affecting. Her relationship with Toomer was intense, emotional, and possibly sexual. Her descriptions of the cats at Stieglitz's family home at Lake George constitute one of many highlights.

to Jean Toomer

Lake George
10 January 1934

I waked this morning with a dream about you just disappearing — As I seemed to be waking you were leaning over me as you sat on the side of my bed the way you did the night I went to sleep and slept all evening in the dining room — I was warm and just rousing myself with the feeling of you bending over me — when someone came for you — I wasn't quite awake yet — seemed to be in my room upstairs — doors opening and closing in the hall and to the bathroom — whispers — a womans slight laugh — a space of time — then I seemed to wake and realize you had gone out and that the noises I had heard in my half sleep undoubtedly meant that you had been in bed with her — and in my half sleep it seemed that she had come for you as tho it was her right — I was neither surprised nor hurt that you were gone or that I heard you with her

And you will laugh when I tell you who the woman was — It is so funny — it was Dorothy Kreymborg

And I waked to my room here — down stairs with a sharp consciousness of the difference between us

The center of you seems to me to be built with your mind — clear — beautiful — relentless — with a deep warm humanness that I think I can see and understand but have not — so maybe I neither see nor understand even tho I think I do — I understand enough to feel I do not wish to touch it unless I can accept it completely because it is so humanly beautiful and beyond me at the moment I dread touching it in any way but with complete acceptance. My center does not come from my mind — it feels in me like a plot of warm moist well tilled earth with the sun shining hot on it — nothing with a spark of possibility of growth seems seeded in it at the moment —

It seems I would rather feel it starkly empty than let anything be planted that can not be tended to the fullest possibility of its growth and what that means I do not know

but I do know that the demands of my plot of earth are relentless if anything is to grow in it — worthy of its quality

east river, new york, no. 2 , 1927

Maybe the quality that we have in common is relentlessness — maybe the thing that attracts me to you separates me from you — a kind of beauty that circumstance has developed in you — and that I have not felt the need of till now. I can not reach it in a minute

If the past year or two or three has taught me anything it is that my plot of earth must be tended with absurd care — By myself first — and if second by someone else it must be with absolute trust — their thinking carefully and knowing what they do — It seems it would be very difficult for me to live if it were wrecked again just now —

The morning you left I only told you half of my difficulties of the night before. We can not really meet without a real battle with one another and each one within the self

if I see at all

You have other things to think of now — this asks nothing of you.

It is simply as I see — I write it — though I think I have said most of it —

My beautiful white Kitten Cat is in a bad way for three days — she seems to have a distressing need for a grown real male — and these two little Kittens seem quite puzzled and frequently quite excited — and they are all running me wild — I feel like digging a hole in the back yard and burying the whole outfit

I never saw such a performance before — and right at this moment I dont need it — troubles enough with myself —

I do have to laugh when I think of your possible remarks if it had happened when you were here

I like you much.

I like knowing the feel of your maleness

and your laugh —

to Jean Toomer

On the boat from New York to Bermuda
5 March 1934

Just a little I must write you from the boat before I start into another way of living.

It has been a warm — soft — smooth — sparkling day — Sun that I seemed to have forgotten could be warm — I felt petted all over — lying out there on the deck — alone — looking at the water — It seems another world — I am glad to be moving into it — away and away from everyone and everything that seems connected with my life — everything except myself of course — it is something of a trial to take that along —

The days in the city were very good for me I think — tho I did not enjoy them particularly. I had to go shopping as I had very little to wear and the struggles with garments of various kinds — shopgirls — taxis and what not was good I think — It got me back very much into my old way of going about and doing things so that each day it seemed to tire me less

As for my connections with people — I feel more or less like a reed blown about by the winds of my habits — my affections — the things that I am — moving it seems — more and more toward a kind of aloneness — not because I wish it so but because there seems no other way. The days with A. were very dear to me in a way — It was very difficult to leave him but I knew I could not stay —

east river from the shelton, 1928

The city was cold and windy — snow as I never saw it there — the harbor all floating ice

My old sense of reality seems displaced and I cannot quite anchor a new one — What you write me of your eye and your cold bothers me — particularly since I have not heard again — I imagine you got a cold and got sick just because things seemed too difficult for you — or I am wrong.

Anyway it bothers me — particularly as I seem to be treating myself very well — taking myself to the sun

It all makes everything seem so awry and fantastic

Someone skidded into my parked car before I left Lake George and did $35.00 worth of damage to the side of it — Luckily I was insured

I hope you are better

You must know that my coming out here to these toy islands on the glassy green blue sea is only an evasion — I do not look forward to it — do not like it that I come for any such reason but that is the way it is

I will write you of the life when I get to it — The circumstances are bit odd to say the least

In the meantime I hope you are better and busy at something —

radiator bulding - night, new york, 1927

Cady Wells was an aspiring artist who decided to become a painter upon arriving in New Mexico in 1932. After O'Keeffe offered a slight criticism of one of his works - "maybe you fooled yourself a bit because it was so handsome" - he offered to throttle her. She apparently took no offense:

to Cady Wells

New York, late February 1938

Dear Cady:

No — Im not annoyed with you — and I dont care anything about your manners one way or the other — Your letter seems very normal and I like it that you are angry tho making you angry or whatever I did to you was not my wish or intention — I knew when I wrote that I was hurting the artist in you and I like it that you kick back and spit at me. It isnt that I have any particular liking for being treated that way but I like the artist standing yourself — believing in his own word no matter what anyone may say about it. Believing in what one does ones self is really more important than having other people pat you on the back. There really isn't any reason for you to be so annoyed with me that you want to choke me for saying that your things are very good and will see — I dont see anything so awful about that remark — It simply means that I think you are keyed in a way with your time so that people will like what you do. The same thing could be said of me — I don't consider it a remark either for me or against me. It just happens to be a fact. — And as long as you make perfectly clear without actually saying it that you dont care what I think anyway — I cant imagine why you want to choke me — why bother — I very much doubt its being worthwhile. I am glad you have had such a good winter.

Maybe it will please you while you are thinking unpleasant things about me to think to yourself that my winter has not been so good —

You can say to yourself gleefully — serves her right!

However — it is pleasant enough now — a week of lovely spring sun — my hedge is all turning green and I am feeling fine again —

Wonder what we can fuss about next — probably everything.

G.

pedernal, 1945 O'Keeffe met the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright when she received an honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1942. She would later refer to him as "one of my favorite people of our time."

to Frank Lloyd Wright

On the train from Chicago to New York
May 1942
Thursday afternoon

Dear Frank Lloyd Wright,

I wish that I could tell you how much the hours with you mean to me — I've thought of you most of my waking hours since I left your house and I assure you that I left with a keen feeling of regret

Last night in the hotel in Chicago — my sister gone on to Cleveland to meet her husband — I got out your book. I read the part marked with the red line at the end — then started at the beginning and read to the end of the first evening — stopping often to think about it — always relating what you give me to painting — to what I want to do — and you may smile when I say to you that I thought seriously of taking the train back to Madison to visit you again — I thought too — if I had offered you one of my best paintings years ago — maybe you would have taken it — I remember that even then — so long ago — that was what I wanted to do even tho I did not know you as I do now — I felt that I should offer you my best but I knew Alfred would make a great stir if I started doing things like that —

I have always said to him that I think I should give things away — that it would be alright — and he always says — "Yes — it would be if you were alone — but it wouldn't be while I'm around"

Since I visited you I know that my feeling was right for me. Two together aren't the same as one alone —

As I think over this whole trip — the hours with you are the only part of it that I feel really add to my life —

I salute you and go on to the second evening of your book with very real thanks

Will you give a very quiet greeting and thanks to the beautiful wife

Sincerely

Georgia O'Keeffe

It was Anita Pollitzer who encouraged Georgia to become involved in the cause of women's liberation.

to Eleanor Roosevelt

Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt
29 Wash. Sq. W.
N.Y.

Having noticed in the N.Y. Times of Feb. 1st that you are against the Equal Rights Amendment may I say to you that it is the women who have studied the idea of Equal Rights and worked for Equal Rights that make it possible for you, today, to be the power that you are in our country, to work as you work and to have the kind of public life that you have.

The Equal Rights Amendment would write into the highest law of our country, legal equality for all. At present women do not have it and I believe we are considered — half the people.

Equal Rights and Responsibilities is a basic idea that would have very important psychological effects on women and men from the time they are born. It could very much change the girl's idea of her place in the world. I would like each child to feel responsible for the country and that no door for any activity they may choose is closed on account of sex.

It seems to me very important to the idea of true democracy — to my country — and to the world eventually — that all men and women stand equal under the sky —

I wish that you could be with us in this fight — You could be a real help to this change that must come.

Sincerely

Georgia O'Keeffe

near abuquiu, new mexico - hills to the left, 1941 to Cady Wells

Abiquiu, early 1940s

Cady — it is Monday night — and I must write you as you did not come because I have thought so much you — to you. I really did not think you would come but I hoped you would — I wanted to walk through my world here with you — up to the cliffs — the bare — open space — then back down another area where the water drains and there are trees and big bushes — tonight — at sunset I walked alone out through the red hills — I thought of you — wished you were with me but I get a keen sort of exhilaration from being alone — it was cold enough to wear a woolen jacket — I walked some distance — then climbed quite high — a place swept clean where the wind blows between two hills too high to climb unless you want to work very hard — I didn't want to climb so high — it was too late — but from where I stood it seemed I could see all over this world — When the sun is just gone the color is so fine — and I like the feel of wind against me when I get up high — My world here is a world almost untouched by man — I feel that your world out there has been colored by the soul of the Mexican

— I really dont know why I should so much wish you to walk with me through what is just outside my door — unless it is that I think it almost the best thing to do that I know of out here — it is so bare — with a sort of ages old feeling of death on it — still it is warm and soft and I love it with my skin — and I never meet anyone out there — it is almost always alone — I wanted you to walk through it with me like I wanted you to go to hear Marian Anderson sing — it is one of the best things I know of — Well — you did things you really wanted to do I am sure — the days must have gone very fast. I did not realize till this afternoon when I counted up the days on my fingers that you must be leaving either today or tomorrow — It was very good to see you — I have really become very fond of you —

Georgia

Although the following letter is undated, it was likely sent around the time of the second world war.

to Cady Wells

On the train from New York to New Mexico

Saturday morning

Cady!

I am in the beautiful country — our beautiful country — It is quite green — cloudy — and very cool — And Oh Cady — how I love it — it is really absurd in a way to just love country as I love this — I think of you and I wish for you to return to this soon

I'll always be having that in my head and in my heart for you hard

G.

You can find more of Georgia O'Keeffe on This Recording here.

I feel a sort of fury when you say that you wont succeed I want to shake you to your senses shake such an idea out of you for always Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — There is no such thing — Making your unknown known is the important thing  

letter to Sherwood Anderson, 1923

"Under the Weather" - Book Club (mp3)

"Ain't Gonna Drink No More" - Book Club (mp3)

"Tell Me You Don't Tell Me Lies" - Book Club (mp3)

black abstraction, 1927

Tuesday
Aug092011

In Which We Manage To Make It Work

End of the Trip

by JOANNA SWAN

The dwarfing stones caused the city to be even more gigantic for him than it already was. The manmade horizon, the brutal cut in the body of the giant city it felt as though they were entering the shadow world of hell, when all the boy was seeing was the railroad's answer to the populist crusade to hoist the tracks above the grade crossings so as to end the crashes and the pedestrian carnage.

- Philip Roth, American Pastoral

Davis, California: a veritable Cow-Town where the U.C. Davis Aggies rule the playing field, displaced snowy owls and rabbits foment rage, passionate debate, and press at city council discussions, and Baggins End exists. Davis, California, where greenbelt lanes snake and bike cop citations are a very real threat. Tiny little Davis, my childhood home, where Mom's piano studio was always 98% Asian (to my great delight when Chinese New Year brought moon cakes and recitals brought homemade refreshments and charming extended family).

Yearly hongbao, bi-annual chicken foot-y outings to the New China Buffet, shopping at the S.F. Supermarket in Sacramanto, and a plethora of Guangdong take-out notwithstanding, my small-town schooling could never prepare me for the Mainland itself. From childhood home to college life in Walla Walla, Washington, I traded a small-town high school for a degree in a city known for its sweet onions and Seattle expats, and thus was most green (in the wet-behind-the-ears sense, and also in the where-is-the-azure-sky-and-recycling-program sense, too) upon arrival in Beijing.

Peering out of the Beijing taxi window at endless monstrosities of human engineering, I relished the romantic evocations of Scarlett Johansson's Tokyo scenes in Lost in Translation — and felt very small. This wasn't my first experience with Roth's "man-made sublime that divides and dwarfs," but it was the first time I'd been besieged on all sides by Joy City Malls and Easy Life Malls and Paradise Malls and unfinished subway lines and other things that make David Sedaris' snarky turn snarly.

"Plan of the City of Peking," British LithographIn one of the cafes where coffee is not served to businessmen in a corporate casual atmosphere, I was approached by a small man from a table of The Cools: a Chinese girl with platinum white hair, several subscribers to the black monotone dressing doctrine, and a bald Spaniard who kept giving my boyfriend flirty eyes over his latte. Said small man introduced himself as Juan and asked in adorably broken English if I'd like to model some t-shirts as a "foreigner friend." For want of a more compelling professional life, I consented to do a few jobs for VANCL, a Beijing-based online company that seems to hire hoards of waiguo and nationals alike whose thighs are uniformly much less thunder-y than mine.

This baffling shirt may or may not be an inside joke of the Chinese youth. Either way, it regularly serves as a reminder of why my boyfriend is extra-cool.

VANCL paid better than my teaching job — 600 RMB per 2-or-3-hour job — and visions of free t-shirts with cutesy graphics danced in my head, reminding me that I had yet to purchase a shirt from Threadless.

The first shoot took place at what had been some sort of factory or government compound: firebrick warehouses and snaking alleys now peppered with hints of film and fashion industry gentrification: shiny luxury vehicles, decay-chic rusted doors, an eerie veil of anonymity. The shoot itself was fun, if not a ringer for Bob Harris' "Suntory Time" translation troubles. I was instructed by photographer Han, a most genial young fellow involved with directing and shooting films (many were, he admitted ruefully, "boring propaganda"), to look happy, drunk (I think?) and also that very distinct misty/innocent/pensive pose that's spotted in manga and certain Asian fashion circles eyes demurely downward or at a thoughtful 45-degree upwards tilt, chin coquettishly jutting, hands behind back, or finger at lips, feet together, or slightly pigeon-toed.

During most shoots, a young man would crouch below me, aiming a hairdryer directly at my head. Half the photos capture my futile attempts to extricate flyaways from my over-glossed lips.

What ultimately inspired the photographers would always be my hair. I'd come with it tied up in a bun, hoping to keep my tresses locked away from the snarls, split ends, and the leonine mane it revels in when freed from ponytail prison; everyone always wanted it down, though — I was to shake, twirl, fluff, flip, twist, braid. I ended up under a curling iron more than once and 45 minutes later the proud stylist would present his creation: Sandra Dee meets Amy Winehouse with bubblegum lipstick.

If I look happy, it's because I thought they weren't going to curl my hair.

I made friends with a girl who'd seen my photos on VANCL, a friend of Juan's. Her job confounded me until I realized that rather than sell clothes, she contracted out photography jobs for companies — they chose the model and backgrounds, she styled and produced the photoshoots. Once, I modeled 60 down coats in June for a big website. It was cool, I got free Victory Vitamin Water.

Sweating under my pancake makeup. Fashion. It's Height.

I took the 991 bus to her studio to model various outfits, and the bus trip alone cost me three hours of my life roundtrip. I'd sit with my magazines and iPod, watching the bus TV and trying to spot horse-drawn buggies on the road and marveling at the tinted, removed insulation of the Audi dashboards and BMW backseats idling at red lights below me. Such insulation was never afforded a bus passenger, leastwise a laowai.

Once, the blue-uniformed ticket collector helped me with some directions and then asked me about my other, less compelling job: how much did lessons cost for each student? (I told her — 100 RMB to me, 300 RMB to boss-lady.) She had a bit of cilantro in her teeth, perhaps from a recent Beijing Breakfast stop, and gestured at my Lapham's Quarterly every time she mentioned teaching or English. On TV there was a video of Michael Jackson performing the Sawing A Woman in Half magic trick while singing "Smooth Criminal." There were also many yelling ads.

Raised voices being frequent and tolerated in most areas except perhaps temples, shrines, and the respectable sit-down restaurant known as Pizza Hut, the promotions heralded the imminent glee of summertime, liberation at hand. Everyone yelled in these ads: old ladies exclaimed about online shopping deals, a young woman called "wu ba dian commmm!!" (online classified ads) to the world through her cupped hands, two young lovers yelled coyly about chocolate popsicles, an actress and popular microblogger rode a CGI donkey and hollered about something that sounded like "ganji-laaaaaa!" All the while, we scuttled past the blue and white corrugated walls of Yah Gee Modular Housing or JH Prefab Housing, the two choices migrant workers seemed to have regarding city lodging.

On the return trip from my last modeling job, I fell asleep and woke up sweaty as from a fever dream, wondering if my stop had already passed. Wrong as always in my evaluation of China's great breadth, I inconspicuously peeled away my false eyelashes, stained my last Kleenex with melted mauve and dripping beige foundation, and settled down to the last hour of the myriad strange smells of public transportation, aircon drips, and a stomach aching for an icy pop to usher in the oppressive Beijing summer.

Joanna Swan is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and artist living in Beijing. She last wrote in these pages about living in China. She blogs here and tumbls here. 

Photographs by the author and Galen Phillips.

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