In Defense of Taylor Swift…

If you’ve read my blog before or know me personally, you know that one of my biggest passions is Africa. In fact, my interest in the continent shaped the trajectory of my adult life. I studied Africa and African languages at university, and following graduation, I went onto have a fulfilling career analyzing African politics. Earlier this year, I moved on to a different line of work, and I would be lying if I said a day had gone by when I didn’t miss my previous job. I often find myself daydreaming of my past travels to East Africa, wondering when—not if—I’ll make it there again.

If you are a reader of my blog, you probably also know that I am a HUGE Taylor Swift fan. I’ve seen her in concert on her last three tours. I blogged about taking my stepdaughters to see her Red Tour. My stepkids even wrote her letters asking her to sing at our wedding. (They were bummed when she didn’t respond, but we forgive you, Tay Tay.) Imagine my surprise when I learned that Taylor Swift’s latest music video for her song Wildest Dreams was set in Africa! Two of my favorite things in one place—fantastic!

Unfortunately, that wasn’t my initial reaction. I first learned of the video when a friend of mine posted this NPR article on Facebook. Admittedly, I sighed and thought, Oh no, Taylor. I hope this isn’t as atrocious as it sounds. I like you so much. How could you have offended something I hold so near and dear to my heart?

I watched the video, and I didn’t have a problem with it. I actually (dare I say?) enjoyed it. The video, shot in a very “Old Hollywood,” style, portrays two 1950s actors having a relationship while filming a movie in Africa. The video has been criticized for romanticizing colonial Africa and not representing a full picture of the continent. While I certainly want to be sensitive to the authors’ backgrounds and perspectives, I think they are taking away from the good intentions Swift had and making the video into something it’s not. Swift happens to be white, and she is portraying an actress in a love story with a white man on the set of a period film. Sure, it would have been nice to see some scenes with Africans, but considering the era in which it is set, they probably wouldn’t have been portrayed in the best light, if they wanted to be historically accurate.

In their NPR article, Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe criticize Swift for focusing on the waterfalls, mountains, and majestic animals rather than the technological and leadership renaissance currently taking place in Africa. Somehow I think a song whose lyrics are about a love story doesn’t really lend itself to a music video depicting the technology boom in Africa, but what do I know? Swift’s use of Africa’s beautiful landscape and wildlife for her background does not take away from all of the other wonderful, positive developments occurring in Africa today.

When topics like this start trending, I start to think that we as a society are so busy looking for ways to be offended that we fail to appreciate, or even recognize, the good when it happens. Swift’s video brings attention to the continent and may even attract more tourism—or it could have at least, before it was twisted into something ugly and racist. According to the World Bank, the number of tourists arriving in Sub-Saharan Africa has grown over 300 percent since 1990, and tourism remains one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the world economy. That tourism often includes safaris as well as various cultural events.

During a time when issues like Cecil the Lion are trending (whether you deem this an issue worth trending or not), a video that shows some of Africa’s beauty with proceeds going to African parks should be welcomed. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t other causes that you may feel are more important. This was Swift’s call, and she chose a cause in which she believes. She didn’t need to choose one at all.

I also realize that animals represent only SOME of the beauty on the continent. However, it’s the amazing, diverse, and loving people with whom I’ve connected that kept me going back to Africa. I hope that Swift was able to meet some of those amazing people while she was there filming.

Toward the end of their article, Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe say Swift “packages our continent as the backdrop for her romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans. That is beyond problematic.”

Yes, because every white person who went to Africa in the 1950s—especially movie stars that were shooting a film—killed, dehumanized, and traumatized millions of Africans. Way to generalize.

The purpose of Swift’s video was not to give a present day look at the most important issues on the continent nor was it to glamorize the brutal treatment of Africans during colonial rule. It is a period piece about a love story with a beautiful backdrop. Plain and simple.

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Frankly Speaking…

IMG_1634Over the Thanksgiving holiday, RM and I had the opportunity to visit the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. I’ve wanted to visit Fallingwater for years, but I never made it there—until now.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Fallingwater, Frank designed the home for the Kaufmann family—owners of the department store—in 1935 and finished the home in 1937. It was designated an historic landmark in 1966 and was listed on Smithsonian’s list of 28 places to see before you die in 2008.

The timing of our visit was especially perfect because I recently finished the historical fiction book, Loving Frank, which tells the story of Frank’s love affair with Mamah Borthwick. If you haven’t read the book and you don’t want the ending spoiled, then you shouldn’t read further OR Google anything about Mamah Borthwick. I really do think the book is best experienced if you don’t know how it ends. That’s the spoiler alert, folks. Read on at your own risk!

Loving Frank tells the story of the scandalous love affair between Frank and Mamah Borthwick (Mamah Cheney at the time), the wife of one of Frank’s clients, from 1907-1914. Not much is known about Mamah, so the author hinges the story on a handful factual events and information, largely creating a work of fiction told from Mamah’s point of view. Together, Mamah and Frank leave their spouses and children for Europe but eventually have to come back to reality, only to find that their reputations have been tarnished in Chicago society. Frank returns to his family, mostly due to the fact that his wife Catherine will not grant him a divorce.

Mamah, on the other hand, is steadfast in her decision to leave her marriage and views it as a form of feminist liberation, convincing herself that she will be happier with Frank, and by extension, her kids will be happier as well. What Mamah finds as she slowly gives up her own intellectual pursuits and becomes more engulfed in her romance with Frank, is that she has sacrificed her relationship with her children, almost to the point that it is irreparable. The author does a fantastic job of painting the picture of a woman who slowly starts to feel the regret of choosing the instant gratification and tempting passion of a love affair over her maternal love for her children.

The Golden Standard
The Golden Standard

In 1914, Mamah finally begins to rebuild her relationship with her children while they are visiting the home Frank built for her in Wisconsin when her and her children are brutally murdered by their cook. A tragic end that I certainly did not see coming!

While I didn’t agree with Mamah’s or Frank’s choice to leave their families, I couldn’t help but feel compassion for them. They found happiness in each other and had a way of making the other come alive. Who doesn’t want to feel that way? Interestingly, I found the ending of this book strikingly different from the story we often read in books today and increasingly in our culture. For example, I would argue that books-turned-movies, Eat Pray Love and Wild, encourage the same type of “feminist liberation,” Mamah was searching for in the early 1900s. Yet in these modern stories, everything magically works out for the better in the end. The women find happiness after leaving their husbands to pursue their own interests. We all applaud and admire them for it. We give them book deals, million dollar movie deals, and Golden Globe nominations for the actresses portraying them. Is it possible that after more than a hundred years women are still searching for the same things, just with a different backdrop? And at what cost? Would we feel the same way if it were men who left their wives in pursuit of liberation and being true to one’s self? Would we applaud them or would we call them jerks?

If Mamah were alive today, would she tell us that she would have chosen differently? Maybe. Maybe not. Part of me hopes she would for the sake of her children and husband, but if I’m honest, the other part of me loves her romance with Frank—eccentric, self-centered, talented Frank. –And we all love a good tragedy, don’t we?

As RM and I walked the grounds of Fallingwater, I imagined Frank walking those grounds, so many years ago.  Did he think of Mamah as he designed the home?  Did he miss her?  Or was Mamah merely a distant memory, as he went on to marry two other women after Catherine finally granted him a divorce in 1922.  At the time of Fallingwater, Frank was married to his third and final wife, with whom he stayed married until he died in 1959.

Have you read Loving Frank? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think Mamah ultimately regrets her choice to leave her family for Frank? Should she have chosen differently? How do you think women’s approaches to marriage and love affairs have changed (or haven’t changed) over the past 100 years?  Did Mamah and Frank really love each other or was this lust?  How has learning of Frank’s multiple affairs and marriages following Mamah’s death impacted your view of his relationship with and feelings toward Mamah?

Running into the New Year

For the past several years, when I find myself in conversations about sports, I often proudly tell others that I played varsity basketball as a freshman in high school.  They’re usually surprised and impressed, and then, depending on the audience, I may or may not share a critical detail—I went to an all-girls school with a mere 40 girls in my entire grade.  The fact that I was on the varsity team as a freshman didn’t mean that I was exceptionally talented or skilled.  I was also on the junior varsity team.  There simply weren’t enough of us.

It’s funny—I can remember avoiding sports for as long as I can remember.  If I had a dime for every headache I faked to get out of a game of kickball in grade school… or every excuse I came up with so that I wouldn’t have to “run the mile” in the annual physical fitness test… That said, I enthusiastically leapt into basketball as a pre-adolescent and like most kids in my Chicago suburb at that time, I was obsessed with the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan.

It wasn’t until about halfway through high school when I came to the sad but true realization that I excelled at other school activities more than sports.  I hung up my basketball jersey in exchange for theater costumes.  I nerded out in Latin Honor Society, Speech Team, and show choir.  Following high school, I went on to college where I lived in the honors dorms where I knew I would face no pressure to be good at sports.  I managed to complete my bachelor’s degree without once setting foot into the school’s gym facilities.  Now that I’m nearing 30 years old, I realize that’s not a fact of which I should be proud.  In fact, I’m realizing a lot of things…

  1. I can no longer eat meals of breadsticks or Mad Mushroom cheesy bread for dinner.  How was that ever acceptable?
  2. I can’t will myself to be thin without ever stepping into a gym nor can I rely on a stressful job to keep me thin (so long Washington D.C. lifestyle!).
  3. If I’m going to live in Seattle, I should take advantage of the outdoors because it’s amazingly beautiful here.  Seriously.
  4. I need to take care of myself emotionally, spiritually, and physically if I want to be in the best position to be kind and loving to RM and the kiddies.
  5. I want to live a long, healthy life.

For these reasons, on 1 November I decided go against everything in my being that tells me that I am not athletic and begin my 2014 New Year’s resolution early.  I set a goal of running an average of three times a week for at least three miles.  I counted up the runs and put that number on a dry-erase board, giving myself until 1 March to complete them.  If I complete my goal by 1 March, I will reward myself with a 6-month membership to Yuan Spa.  You can check it Yuan Spa here.  A-mazing.  I went there once in October, and I’ve been DYING to return.  I’ve gone from barely running one mile to running three miles continuously, and recently FOUR whole miles without walking.  Now, I know that might not sound impressive to people who are dedicated, legitimate runners, but for me, this is a huge accomplishment.  I’ve also upped the ante a bit with the upcoming start of the New Year and registered for my very first race—the Shamrock Run 5k on 15 March.  This might be the first actual concrete resolution that I’ve ever made, and I intend to keep it.  When I feel like giving up, I have a spa to fantasize about… and a wedding dress to make sure I look good in 🙂

A New “Friday Night”

New addition to our movie collection.
New addition to our movie collection.

You realize how much your life has changed when your idea of the perfect Friday evening includes a warm, home cooked meal, followed by cuddling and watching a family flick with the kiddies on the couch.  This was my experience last Friday night, and I had to laugh to myself about how far we’ve all come over this past year.

RM has emphasized to me the importance of “Friday Night” with the kiddies since Day One.  They have a tradition of sharing a nice meal together and then staying up late to watch a movie as a family.  While “Friday Night” usually happens on an actual Friday, that isn’t necessarily always the case.  If the kids are out of school, then “Friday Night” can happen any night of the week—it just means we’re having a nice meal, getting into our jammies, and watching a movie together.  You’re probably thinking, that sounds great.  What’s the problem?

Well, the part you probably don’t know is that RM and I live three hours away from each other.  I know; I just blew your mind with that fact.  We’re pseudo long distance.  It’s true.  We spent many Friday evenings, particularly early in our relationship, at his place, which meant I arrived after a three-hour drive and a long week at work.  Yes, I was ready to relax and watch a movie, but I was also craving some serious one-on-one time with my man after a week away from him.

While I’ve enjoyed “Friday Nights” with the kids, it took several months until any of the cuddles were directed my way—understandably so.  Most of the time, I found myself sitting on the other couch all by my lonesome, struggling to keep my eyes open long enough to outlast the kids.  On the opposite couch sat RM, showered with affection and cuddles from his three little ones.  After all, they hadn’t seen him all week either.  As wonderful as it was to see RM be such a good daddy, often those times felt incredibly lonely for me.

It takes time, I told myself.  It’s important for the kids to have time with their dad.  You’re an adult; buck up and wait your turn.  The kids will go to bed early tomorrow night, and that will come soon enough.

Months went by, and slowly but surely, #3 started cuddling with me in addition to—or sometimes instead of—her daddy.  I still remember the first time she snuggled up to me.  RM looked over at us with a big smile that matched the smile on my own face.  What a special night!

Last weekend, we had #2 and #3, while #1 had a special one-on-one weekend with her mom.   As RM, the kids, and I were about to sit down on the couch to watch We Bought a Zoo, RM’s son (#2) said to me, “Christina, can I cuddle you?”  If that doesn’t make you feel special, I don’t know what does.  Guess these “Friday Nights” aren’t so bad after all 😉

Reaping the Rewards

Last weekend I was making good on a promise I had made to #3 to take her to get her nails done as a special treat for a recent accomplishment. I planned on asking #1 if she wanted to come along, although I suspected she would say no as she hasn’t shown interest in these sorts of things.

Before I had a chance to ask #1 if she wanted to join, she enthusiastically said, “Can I come??”  I said, “Of course!  Do you want to get your nails done?”  And to my astonishment, she said yes!  Both girls shrieked with excitement while they hurriedly got dressed to leave.

In my recent T. Swift post, I mentioned briefly that I’ve had the most difficulty bonding with RM’s oldest—his 10-year-old daughter (#1).  She’s been very sweet to me 95 percent of the time, but the other 5 percent of the time, it’s been tough.  She is 10 after all—and the oldest—so it’s only natural that it’s a bit more difficult with her.

Over the past year, I’ve held firm to the “let them come to you” approach.  It’s been a difficult balance as the younger two have taken to me much more quickly and have become increasingly affectionate over the past several months—hugs, cuddles, “I love you’s”—the whole bit.  However, I began worrying that I was waiting too long for #1 to come to me.  Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea after all.  Would my newfound closeness with #2 and #3 make her feel isolated and do the opposite of what I was hoping?

Since #1 wasn’t ready for the same type of love as #2 and #3 were, I had to find other ways to show her love and affection.  I would stand up for her if she had been waiting patiently for her turn on the I-pad.  I would ask her opinion about things, even the inconsequential things like, “What do you think of this shirt?  Does it match?”  I shared “secrets” with her, like what I was planning for RM’s birthday, and told her that she was allowed to know because she was the oldest, creating the dynamic of trusted allies.

While the past year has not been filled with cuddle sessions between #1 and me, I am starting to reap the rewards of my patient approach, demonstrated by the turn of events at the T. Swift concert and last Saturday.  Hearing #1 sweetly thank me for taking her to the nail salon and seeing her look down at her toes and smile with excitement warmed my heart.  It didn’t matter what had happened up to that point.  At that moment, it felt like a solid “win” to me.

Here is a pic of the finished products:

IMG_0142
P.S. Those are my mammoth feet in the bottom right corner.  What was I thinking with that color?

Anything But a Trophy Wife

My friend K and I were having a conversation on Wednesday that went a little something like this:

K:  So there’s this new show on Hulu, and the tagline is something like, “From Party Girl to Insta-fam.”
Me:  Wait, what?  That sounds a little bit like my tagline.
K:  I know.
(Hence why she is telling me.)
K:  It’s called Trophy Wife.  I enjoyed it, although it felt a little wrong.  It was like they were stealing from you.

Well, that solved that.  RM and I needed to check this out.  Conveniently, we had some much-needed alone time this week, so it was easy to carve out some time to watch the pilot episode on Hulu.

I have to say, I was initially turned off by the title of the show, but the “trophy wife” character Kate, played by Malin Akerman (from Couples Retreat and 27 Dresses), is anything BUT a trophy wife.  Kate is loveable, down-to-earth, and just plain hysterical.  I genuinely enjoyed the episode, and it was nice to be able to watch a similar scenario to my own play out in a humorous way as a third-party.  What a relief to learn that I’m not the only one who has no idea what I’m doing.  I found myself laughing and thinking, I guess I have it easy.  Can anyone say TWO ex-wives?  Eek.

This little gem is going to have to be in the regular rotation this fall.  Catch it on Hulu until 17 September.  The pilot episode premiers on ABC on 24 September.