There is a kind of pasture. It is a delicate, inviting place. The scene is bucolic, crepuscular, and…humid. Perhaps we are in the South, somewhere near Baton Rouge. Fireflies emit their flickering signals with poignant delicacy. They are of one mind. Perhaps there is some August plantation home, foregrounding a purpling sky and the silhouettes of magnolia trees. The sound of whippoorwills. On the wraparound veranda, there is a man with little to say. This is how John Fahey’s instrumental guitar opus, “Sunflower River Blues,” begins.

The vaguely plaintive, lackadaisical strumming of suspended chords inaugurates “Sunflower River Blues,” and so begins a representative excursion into Mr. Fahey’s style, the first of its kind in a genre named, by Fahey himself, “American Primitive Guitar.” American Primitive Guitar is, as its name suggests, a kind of guitar playing which eschews the harmonic complexities and requisite education of classical guitar. While performed in a similar way, American Primitive is more rooted in the “untrained” tradition of blues and folk music (that is, outside the purview of European conservatories). It makes use of the repetition, propulsive rhythms, melodies, and precise fingerpicking of the Mississippi Delta, and often melds those qualities with the reserved, wistful moods of certain European folk and classical pieces.

But this is selling Fahey short. Fahey was a true synthesist, pulling from whatever genre appealed to him. Despite his ostensibly untrained background, the possibilities of the acoustic guitar are on full display in Fahey’s idiosyncratic recordings. He borrowed from the blues, Indian ragas, flamenco, Celtic folk, and even recorded some Christmas albums. Fahey was a musicologist in the most proper sense of the word, and the product of his curiosity was a truly timeless art form.

What does it mean for art to be “timeless?” Is it a piece’s expression of some universal feeling? A feeling which belongs not to some particular ethnos, nation, spatial/temporal locality, specialization, or tribe, but to humanity as a whole? If so, it’s easy to see why Fahey’s work might be labeled as such. Setting aside the music itself, something about the “primitive” aspect of American Primitive Guitar is associated, for me, with timelessness, some antediluvian state of harmony with Nature which transcends modern notions of in-group and out-group.

Such an association is problematic, and no doubt the result of an internalized “noble savage” mythos. However, Fahey himself was quick to dismiss any such lofty interpretations of his coinage. In a 1980s interview, Fahey says, “All I meant was, one, that I don’t have a name for it, and two, the closest you could come would be to call it primitive, in the painting sense. A primitive painter is one whose untutored. That’s all I meant. But other people got hold of it and gave it other connotations.”

Here. Fahey seems to have understood that his utilization of traditional forms was not dialectically opposed to musical innovation and progress. He was not attempting to go backwards in time to some pastoral age, to some recondite Truth lost in the cumulation of technology. Rather, Fahey was looking ahead, and not just as a pioneering artist, but as a thinker.

“Timelessness” can be thought of, literally, as the lack of time, or being outside of time. That which is truly “timeless” is eternal, and Fahey’s recognition of eternity is unmistakable. His penetrating religious sense seems to have bolstered his understanding of the Great Beyond. In a letter to writer Jeff Broome, Fahey explained, “The life of faith is not something we do in cute little catch words, biblical references, bumper-stickers, clubs, cheap publicity, biblical literalism, etc. Christianity is something you do in your closet, ie., unobserved, unadvertised. It is not just one more thing advertised cheaply among other things & of, consequently the same nature & same class as those other things.”

Fahey’s religion is noncommercial, individual, nonsectarian. In true Christian fashion, the joy of certain Fahey pieces, such as “Sunflower River Blues,” is offset by a fair bit of apocalypticism elsewhere. In “Wine and Roses,” the opening track from the album The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, Fahey evokes a plague-ridden funeral dirge, sounding at times like a 17th century John Dowland piece, albeit whittled into the blues. It comes as no surprise, then, that Fahey would say, in an interview, “I think we're in an apocalypse and it's pretty bad and getting worse.”


Image via Getty Images

The year is 1999. In a dark screening room, somewhere deep within the walled compound that was Lucasfilm Ltd’s campus, five men were in deep trouble. They were watching the new “Star Wars'' movie—the first in 16 years since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”—and something wasn’t working. In a documentary released alongside the film, you can see George Lucas, writer and director, slump into his seat. His producer, Rick McCallum, tries to cheer him up to no avail. His editor, Ben Burtt, says the film is “too fast...that we get thrown around.” Lucas’ eyes scan towards production designer Doug Chiang, who, excitedly, says: “We almost got Jar Jar to work.” The camera pans back to Lucas, his hand on his chin.

“Well, if we can make Jar Jar work, we can make the movie work, because he’s funny in a way we haven’t... seen before.,” Lucas says. “Jar Jar is the key to all of this.”

“Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” is considered by many to be the worst installment in the 11-film franchise. The first line of Peter Travers’ review for Rolling Stone put it bluntly: “The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual.” Words weren’t minced for Jar Jar either. In Frank Scheck’s review for the Hollywood Reporter, he was described as “…more suitable for Toys R Us than the big screen” and “ particularly egregious and far more irritating than endearing.”

When I pitched writing an “Entire Piece about Jar Jar Binks,” I didn’t expect it to go so well. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the monoculture, but it’s been instilled in me not to utter that name to just anyone. The tall, goofy, discomforting 3D alien continues to elicit strong reactions, from utter rage to ironic joy, in anyone who’s seen even a short glimpse of the “Star Wars” prequels (themselves hated and loved with the same ferocity.) As a “Star Wars” fan, accustomed since childhood to the numerous “cringe moments” of the franchise, I tried to keep the films’ associations with the Gungan to a bare minimum. I tried to forget he existed.

But secretly, deep down, I felt an odd fondness for Jar Jar. I was born in 2000, which makes 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” just a little older than I am. I remember being five or six, renting the DVD from Blockbuster, being entranced and terrified by the yellow-eyed visage of Darth Maul on the disc. Out of all the strange, monstrous beings on screen, Jar Jar was friendly, clumsy, naive, like myself. In a way, he offered a door for my tiny mind to enter the universe on screen. And I think he did the same for more of us than we’d all like to admit.

I’d like to clear the air a little: this isn’t just a Jar Jar fluff-piece. If it was, I would’ve said that in the title. In a lot of ways, the film’s detractors were correct regarding Jar Jar Binks: his character brings very little to the plot, save minor slapstick and a third act deus-ex-machina. His voice, a sort of faux-patois, was cartoonish at best and offensive at worst. The animation itself is nauseatingly unreal, especially in a film shot on 35mm celluloid. And, really, he wasn’t very funny at all.

Despite all of Jar Jar’s very off-putting traits, I think it’s important to consider just how remarkable the character is for even existing. In 1999, having a fully computer-generated character perform alongside humans in live action was thought to be impossible. But George Lucas insisted on it. The team at Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s effects arm, first tried to put the actor, Ahmed Best, in a realistic rubber suit. Best was not a trained actor; he’d been cast by producer Rick McCallum after a viewing of “STOMP,” the music & dance revue, on Broadway. The plan was to only replace his head with the CGI head of Binks. Lucas was shown two versions of a camera test: one featuring the suit and head replacement, the other fully 3D animated. Somehow, the second way, the way that hadn’t been done before, was cheaper. Such is the spirit of the “Star Wars” prequels.

I don’t have to explain how impactful that decision was. Think about it: if not for Jar Jar Binks, the clumsy arbiter of the CGI Revolution, we wouldn’t have the countless animated beings appearing in the endless deluge of half-animated movies we watch today. Despite the awkwardness and ire, someone had to do it first. In the corporate “Major Motion Picture” sphere, these kinds of experimental, pioneering moves are often quashed. For better or worse, Lucasfilm absorbed the risk. In the age of billion dollar sci-fi epics like Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise, in which effects previsualization and set-building begin years before principal shooting begins, this kind of willful experimentation is almost anachronistic. One would be forgiven for thinking “The Phantom Menace} was a maverick indie film and not the biggest movie in the world.

You’d also be somewhat correct. Lucasfilm was still over a decade off from being bought by Disney, which, believe it or not, made it a fully independent studio. Depending on your definition, “The Phantom Menace” and its subsequent sequels was an “indie” movie. It’s the kind of thing that could never happen today, could never have happened at any time, before or after. Many attribute this as one of the fundamental failures of “The Phantom Menace”’s production, that Lucas having so much control meant he was surrounded by “yes men.” But in the modern world of filmmaking-by-committee (take a look at the “Justice League” fiasco for an example,) it’s incredibly admirable.

I started to see the sentiments around Jar Jar shift in the mid ‘2010s. People online were coming up with increasingly irrational justifications for liking the character—first, as clipped, repeatable images, then as increasingly dense conspiracy theories about Lucas’ original intention to make Jar Jar a Sith Lord—that those justifications themselves became memes. It seemed, in general, that a group of fans who’d grown up with the bumbling fool had grown to love him too.

With the Disney sequels on the horizon, the prequel movies began a quiet resurgence and reappraisal. While I’ll go to bat for the sequels, I’d felt a keen sense on the opening night of 2015’s “The Force Awakens” that not much new had been tried. I was oddly nostalgic for movies that weren’t very good at all, only because they looked and felt so different.

The prequels were, to quote James Hannaham, “just north of wrong.” Jar Jar, his idiocy, his uncanny pioneering, is the clearest example of this. For an artistic decision so wholly reviled at release to slowly become a prescient sign for the medium to come is an anomaly for the history books. But in a billion dollar industry, with many massive companies all competing for the next “Star Wars,” it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a blockbuster, nor a character, like this again.


Art by Noelani Fishman

I didn’t grow up religious, but it was a sin to waste a wish.

I remember countless times where I was at the store with my dad and would say, I wish I had some ice cream or I wish I had those shoes. As the years wore on, I began wishing I looked like Melinda Gordon from “Ghost Whisperer” or wishing I didn’t have straight hair. Whenever my dad heard me say, I wish, he would immediately turn to me and respond, Lauren, don’t waste a wish. He didn’t say it sternly; it was more of a knowing, singsong-tone. He would then follow that with something like, If you had a magic genie, would you really want that to be one of your wishes?

Over time, I was afraid some forest witch or magical spirit would hear me and grant one of my insignificant wishes, then evilly laugh at me for being a fool and wanting something so flippant. It sounds childish, but I am still afraid to wish for anything unless I have thoroughly thought it through.

There are many things that parents pass onto their children, such as genetics or family heirlooms. However, I inherited the superstitions and phrases my parents repeated throughout my childhood.

My parents grew up in Chicago in the ‘60s, where small homes were packed full of family members and children were to be seen, not heard (my mom ate dinner in silence because my grandfather declared dinnertime as his quiet time.) While we do inherit a lot from our parents, we also learn how to be different from them. I believe my mom purposely raised us in an environment that was opposite of her own. She encouraged my brother and I to laugh at the dinner table and never silence our voices. Playing outside was also a significant part of our childhood: being able to let my imagination take me wherever I pleased while roaming around the backyard was important to me.

When I write now, I often try to channel my childhood imagination, and most of the time it helps me clear my head and allow my mind to conjure entirely new storylines, characters and worlds. As a child, I was never confined to reality, which taught me to dream and imagine anything and everything, even if it seemed unrealistic.

My dad has worked in construction since he was 13, so I always loved the smell of sawdust after a day of him working outside. After work, he would sit in a lawn chair and enjoy the sound of the cool wind rustling the leaves and listen to the bugs and bullfrogs. When I joined him, we tried to spot UFOs. When we couldn’t find any, he pointed to different stars and pondered our place in the world and what lay beyond the stars in other galaxies. We talked about what alien creatures may look like on other planets and if our backyard had any portals we could use to travel in time.

My dad instilled in me that there is too much unknown for anything to be certain, and the universe is too strange for anything to be impossible. Now, one of my favorite times of the year is when it’s warm enough that I can sit outside and inhale fresh air after a long winter. That fresh air reminds me of my dad’s superstitions which taught me to stay curious about what may be in the air around me or in a universe nearby.

After playing outside as a child, I would sometimes come back in the house with excruciating headaches that brought me to uncontrollable tears. My mom inherited a booming voice from my grandfather’s deep Ukrainian accent and my great-grandmother’s rich Polish one, but she always knew to have a calm tone when I needed it. Between my sobs, my mom would quietly ask, Do you want me to find the beep? I would nod and lay my head on her lap. She guided her finger to my forehead and temples until she found the point in my head that was throbbing with the headache. There’s the beep! It’s going in my finger now. Then with some sort of “spell or magic,” she transferred the throbbing in my head into the tip of her finger.

As I got older, I asked her how she transferred the beep and she simply said mind over matter. It wasn’t until I grew into adulthood and had to deal with headaches on my own that I realized she meant that it would stop hurting once I stopped thinking about how badly it hurt.

That message has helped me through many more headaches and moments of pain. Nowadays, I often catch my mind dwelling too much on small daily stresses, like waking up too late or pondering the uncertainty of the future—all the what if’s and fear of regret. But every time I find myself falling down a rabbit hole of my own thoughts, her voice pops in my head saying mind over matter, and I am able to reassess what is fueling my fear rather than giving power to fearful emotions. That small phrase that I heard throughout my childhood is now like a refrain in my mind.

My parents never intended for these moments to stay with me into adulthood, but they have added up to create the person I am today. From my dad, I learned to have an open and curious mind; from my mom, I learned to be myself, allow my brain to create worlds and help ground me in this one. All of these passed-on thoughts are like puzzle pieces—and over time, as I add more pieces, I’m able to understand the portrait of myself more and more.


Photo by Lauren Jonaitis

As a kid, I didn’t particularly care who Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were, because Barbie landed on the moon years before they did. Seeing “The Nutcracker” at the Houston ballet was nothing compared to seeing Barbie spin around on-screen to defeat the mouse king in the Barbie film of the same name. In 2008, I wanted my mom to put Barbie’s name on the ballot instead of her preferred candidate’s. Barbie was a powerful, successful and kind woman, just like I wanted to be. I still love her for that.

The original Barbie was released on March 9, 1959 with the first marketing campaign directly advertised to children. For the first time, little girls were given the chance to choose their role model. In the ‘50s, Barbie was a frizzy orange-haired thing with the exaggerated brows, blush, red lipstick and black eyeliner of the times. In 1968, the first African American friend of Barbie was released, with the first two Black and Latina Barbies following in 1980.

The most beautiful thing about Barbie is that she contains many identities; she can be almost anybody without contradicting herself. Her critics seem to think of her solely as Malibu Barbie, a carefree Californian beach girl with an unrealistic body type, willfully ignoring all the times that Barbie has excelled in competitive career fields and earned several graduate degrees. The Barbies that populated my toy box rode around in the Malibu Barbie car after a shift as a teacher, headed to the Olympics and would be back in time to report for duty as president to solve world peace. Because Barbie is everything, a kid only needs to search their imagination for what they need from her.

My child imagination, however, was stifled by the fact that the Barbie that dominated the screen, store aisles and toy box was the blonde, blue-eyed one. If you were lucky, you might be able to buy a Black Barbie or a white brunette Barbie, but I could never quite accept that Barbie didn’t look like me, or, rather, that I didn’t look like Barbie.

I loved Barbie. I loved that she was smart, strong and able to be a good friend. I loved that she was a princess, a musketeer and a ballerina. So I would put on a tangled, blonde Hannah Montana wig and a pink princess dress to try to look like her. It never worked. My black hair poked out from underneath the wig and I thought my skin looked more like the dirt under Barbie’s feet. A heart-wrenching experience for me, to say the least: I tried to measure up to Barbie and found that I didn’t even compare.

I lost interest in the whole Barbie franchise as I grew up. The release of the “Barbie Fashionistas” line in 2009, a series of Barbie dolls with different looks and styles, only vaguely registered. I remember the release of the “curvy” Barbie in 2016, only because it caused such a scandal (even with her new bodies, Barbie still didn’t have enough appeal for the 2010s.) Thankfully, the 2012 release of the “Barbie Dolls of the World” line didn’t even show up on my radar, because the Barbie from Mexico, my country of birth, came with a chihuahua and a passport. If I’d come across that tragically tone-deaf attempt at diversity, it might’ve been enough for me to write her off altogether.

I was still waiting for Barbie to offer something new, even if I didn’t know it. I didn’t find it until 2019, after I’d moved away from my hometown and was living on my own.

I was shopping in Target and took a detour through the toy aisle. There, I saw her: Barbie 121, the Hispanic Barbie with a silver prosthetic leg. I burst into tears right there. It was a small bandaid on a psychic wound. I remembered all the times I stood in front of the mirror looking back and forth between Barbie and myself. I remembered scrubbing my skin raw hoping that it would reveal a lighter layer underneath. I remembered the feeling of loving Barbie so much and myself not at all. This wonderful, simple plastic toy had moved me to a point where I sobbed in relief in a public bathroom. For the first time, I truly looked like Barbie.

I didn’t buy her then. Instead, I left the doll for the next little brown girl to come across. Hopefully, she wouldn’t need the moment of healing I’d just had.

Though I didn’t buy Barbie 121, I did recently buy Barbie 147. She has brown skin, brown eyes and brunette hair: my own color palette. She even has a little gold necklace with a circle charm, exactly like one I own. I didn’t realize how much love and tenderness I still held for Barbie until she came in the mail and I squealed in delight like I was still eight-years-old.

That’s the kind of effect Barbie has had on kids since 1959, and will continue to have for years to come. Smoothing her hair and straightening her clothes, I felt how timeless she truly was. Barbie may be a little late in evolving, but if there’s one thing I know about her, it’s that she’s resilient and not going anywhere.


Art by Keithly Vite

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