Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks, Dudes

Thanksgiving! Turkey! More turkey! Turkey with gravy! Making turkey shapes with your hands!


My pies are done, which is making me preternaturally euphoric. Thanks for bearing with me.

Actually, I'll blow up that last balloon of gratitude: thanks for bearing with me for...GEEZ...these past two and a half years?! How many hours have I wasted blogging that I could have spent singlehandedly saving the world from itself? Or SLEEPING?!

Ah, well: it's done.

And honestly it will probably continue to be done, at least until I get saddled with old age or soul-crushing work or small, obnoxious children. And I've even (mostly) enjoyed it! In the spirit of holiday navel gazing (I always want to spell this naval gazing, but that's what you do when the hot young sailors come ashore), I'm offering up a few favorite entries from the last year are so.

Unfortunately, these are process favorites, not product favorites. Sucks to be you! They made have come out misshapen, in other words, but they sure were fun to shape.

In Which You Are Forced to View My Dinner
In Which Jesus Cramps My Style
It's a Trap!
In Which I Accidentally Read Cosmopolitan
Don't Do This
Sad School Stuff
Black Friday

Thanks for reading, all.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Autumn Blab

"I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its tone is mellower, its colors are richer, and it is tinged with a little sorrow. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and it content."

–Lin Yutang

Yeah, OK, but what is this quote doing in my American Speech Language and Hearing Newsletter? Are they hinting that speech therapists are, um, autumnal? Or mellow? How is resting content with one's limitations consistent with a mission to improve functioning in individuals with special needs?

The mind boggles.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


I've been snookered. By a lot of things, actually, including book jackets, course descriptions, and that dastardly catalog advertising fruits of the month sold in conjunction with summer sausage. (The cheese-and-pear basket looked SO much more delectable under studio lights.) Probably the most thorough snookerer was, and continues to be, my own frontal lobe, which puts about that it is the boss of me when it is, in fact, only a puppet of the hindbrain's regime.

The most recent snookering comes at the hands of Google, which offers a list of "themes," or ways to customize the backdrop of your gmail. I bit: the default gmail background was mighty boring. I tried mountains for a while, and then a lonely, rain-ravaged tree. Then I checked the box marked "teahouse" and was immediately enslaved by a pixilated, anthropomorphic fox in a pagoda hat.

The fox lives at the bottom of my screen. He has a whole little life down there, complete with a home, a garden, cleaning supplies, and a birdbath. In the morning he does tai chi on the front steps. In the evening he sweeps the floor. Sometimes he picks flowers or lunches with friends. At night, he sleeps.

I find this egregiously compelling. By compelling I mean fascinating, but also soothing: How reassuring -and yet how simultaneously agitating- to peer into someone else's everyday. You glimpse, in snatches, life running on parallel tracks. It's one of the juicier privileges of reading -though reading, in turn, privileges narrative over the slow accretion of minutes that is life up close.

Only you no longer need books to be a voyeur of the mundane. Thanks to technology, we're awash in snatches of other people's lives. I splash! I wade! I dunk! Yes I DO desperately want to know what you're eating and if you took your umbrella. I want to know when you're bored and what you're staring at and how long you sat at the red light! The boringer the better, folks: I'll bite!

Oh God, I'll bite. Even if the snatches of life are subjected to various degrees of self-editing, a la Facebook. Even if they are drab or awkward or sad. And, yes, even if the life in question belongs to a fake fox with bad taste in headwear.

Dude: get a snood!

That is, after you've finished pouring the tea you're currently pouring.

Not that I'm watching, or anything.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tell Me What You Want (What you Really Really Want)

As part of its recommendations service, Netflix has begun offering "taste preference" rows based on your rankings of the various movies you've watched. Rather than deducing what you'll like from your stated sensibilities, Neflix induces your sensibilities from what you actually like. In other words, NO MORE SELF-DECEPTION.

This is, quite naturally, alarming. No longer can I pass myself off as a fan of high-concept foreign films or Academy Award winners or penetrating political commentary.

Instead, brutally, I'm forced to confront my preferences for:
  • Critically-acclaimed romantic sexual awakening movies
  • British showbiz comedies
  • Quirky BBC TV shows
  • Independent dramas featuring a strong female lead
  • Emotional documentaries

Friday, November 13, 2009

Late Registration

"I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life."

Rapper Kanye West recently fired this shot over the bow, doubtless to warn the massed fleet of librarians pursuing him over the high seas of popular culture that they'd better back off or he'll, like, live at them. For REALZ.

Obviously, Kanye's pronouncement makes me cranky. But I think it's worth drilling down through the dudgeon to conduct some...enhanced interrogations of the statement. (Or, since those techniques have been outlawed, maybe just some questions.) Is Kanye's view legitmate? Is Kanye entitled to hold this view? Is he entitled to express it, and if so, is he entitled to do so on the public stage? And finally, does Kanye dissing reading constitute a public health issue?

Let's take it step by step:

1) Is Kanye's view legitimate?
The whole post-modern thing has made it difficult to comment on the prince vs. bastard status of subjective likes and dislikes, so I have to give Kanye this one. He doesn't like books. OK. He doesn't have to like books.

But it's worth noting that Kanye's statement goes further: He likes to get information from "doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life" It's that pesky word "real" with its implication of objectivity that gets him into trouble. Kanye is pretty clearly implying that "real life" is exclusively an oral medium, a point which seems debatable. Shame on Kanye for asking us to respect his subjective viewpoint while sneaking objectivity on the side.

2)Is Kanye entitled to hold this view?
Yes. I personally think this POV stinks worse than thirteen partially potty-trained preschoolers after a long day in the sun, but there's nothing I can do about it seeing as no one outside of 1984 has launched a successful campaign to legislate our thoughts.

3)Is Kanye entitled to express this view?
Again, yes. That whole America-land-of-the-free business. As far as I know, books are not a minority group protected by laws designed to curb hate speech. Even though there are probably fewer books than people.

4)Is Kanye entitled to express this view on a public stage?
This is a bit trickier. Kanye enjoys the same constitutional freedoms we all enjoy, and can probably declare, in public, that he is a technicolor zebra if he so desires. On the other hand, one could argue that Kanye, as a celebrity, is morally obligated by his status to moderate his speech. This is the Rousseau-Spider Man argument: "With great power comes great responsibility." Kanye may be entitled to express his loathing for all things book, but that doesn't mean he should.

A related line of argument is that because of Kanye's celebrity status and the empirically documented power of celebrities to shape behavior in the rest of us, Kanye's injunction against reading crosses the boundary from speech into act, much like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, and is thus subject to legislation. But that argument entangles us in big ol' boring debate on free will, among other things, and free will makes me sleepy.

I'll give this question a tentative yes. I wish I could say no, but censoring public speech is a slippery slope.

5) Does Kanye dissing reading constitute a public health issue?
This is the stickiest question of all. In the name of public health, Americans regularly accept limitations on their personal freedoms. Think seat belts. Think anti-smoking regulations. Think limited tobacco advertising, FDA regulation of warning labels and advertising, quarantines. We also, in the name of public health, facilitate the manipulation of national norms, as when the government sponsors campaigns to make drugs, sex, and alcohol use by teens seem abnormal and uncool. Social referencing is a powerful force, and studies have shown that people are much more likely to engage in a behavior when it is perceived as "normal."

Is lack of reading a public health risk? Would it have detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of the American public? This is the important question. If the answer is yes, then we ought either to silence Kanye or, more appropriately, to challenge him: we must paint his views as undesirable or outside the norm, so they don't spread.

This is an old tactic. Conservatives have thusly tried to marginalize divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Liberals have tried to marginalize conservatism, pollution, and political incorrectness. Nobody has been completely successful, in part because of the increasing fragmentation of the American public, the ways in which we assort ourselves into ever-more like-minded, close-minded pods. Because we're reading less.

Kanye is a symptom, not a cause. Reading, at its core, is communication unmoored from proximity. It helps us empathize with those outside of our immediate physical and virtual peer groups and, unlike television, isn't mediated by advertising.

Go reading, go! Kanye, I've got a few books for you. They want to autograph your rear.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Parks and Re-creation

I'm not much of a TV fan, but I find myself surprisingly devoted to the Amy Poehler vehicle Parks and Recreation, set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. (I thought about taking umbrage at the fact that Indiana is being used to signify insignificance, but I figure the more people think Indiana is podunk, the fewer people will move here, which means MORE INDIANA FOR ME! Heh.)

Parks and Recreation
posseses the qualities I value most in entertainment:

1) Profound interest in the profoundly unimportant
2) Sensitivity to the hilarity that is falling on your ass

In the most recent episode, Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler's deluded, ambitious Deputy Parks Director, has to save her taciturn boss Ron from his virago of an ex-wife. You can probably still catch the episode on Hulu if you hurry: It's called Ron and Tammy.

The thing that interested me about this one was that it reminded me so vividly of the tale of Tam Lin. You know Tam Lin. A young woman sets out to rescue her lover from the fairies, who have pledged him as part of a teind payed every seven years to Hell. He tells her that she will recognize him by his horse, and that she must hold fast to him at all costs. Tam Lin, under the fairies' spell, becomes a snake, a beast, a hot coal. The girl holds fast until he's once again a man.

I see Tam Lin in this episode. A comic version, spelled by the fairies to look like a bid for laughs, but Tam Lin nevertheless. Her boss transformed by slavish, happy devotion to his ex, Leslie must hold fast to the cranky person she knows is the true Ron in order return him to himself.

The story of Tam Lin, of transformation and devotion, is an old story. It makes me wonder if maybe all of our stories aren't old stories, refashioned to suit the teller and the told.

Other recreations of Tam Lin I've run across:

The Perilous Gard, Elizabeth Pope
Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones
Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki

What else?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nerd Baby

I lost my baby shower virginity on a temperate Tuesday in October. The sky was muddled; the leaves had slunk past red and were spinning, brown and dry, to the asphalt. After work, I drove from my work site back to the main office holding a plastic bag printed with butterflies between my knees.

The women were pleasantly appalled. My first baby shower? I was 28! What had my friends been doing? Didn't I have any family starting a family? (The answers, unspoken, in no particular order: reading novels; no.)

Someone placed a plastic pacifier on a ribbon around my neck; someone else thrust into my hand a cup of pink punch frothy with cream. I watched a video slide show set to inspirational soft-rock hits and I avoided holding the real version of a that video's star, a petite pink bundle who slept and pooped with the blithe disregard of the very new.

It was understood, what you did. You drank your punch. You ate the mini-meatballs and the candy hearts and the homemade truffles with the strange, cake-like filling. You chatted about babies in general and babies in particular, and admired the way the bunker-like conference room had been transformed, with the aid of tablecloths and centerpieces and coordinated tablewear and pink favors and a line of tiny onesies, each bearing a letter of the baby's name, tacked to the wall, into a shrine to babies.

You played baby shower games involving tasting baby food and stealing one another's pacifiers and identifying chocolate bars smeared into diapers. You marveled at the diaper cake and oohed when each pink-ribboned package blossomed into a pink-ribboned pinafore or bunny costume or changing mat. You endured good-natured ribbing about when you, yourself, would get around to reproducing. When the baby cried, you did not flinch.

I was prepared, when I signed up to work for an inner city school system, to face cultural dislocation. I knew that as a white, middle-class woman dealing almost exclusively with black people living in poverty, I would be a stranger in a world with its own rules and rhythms. I would do the wrong thing. Sometimes I would guess the right thing. I would be aware, each and every day, of my difference.

But I wasn't prepared for the second, subtler cultural gap between myself and my colleagues. It's a sneakier gulf: smaller, easier to navigate. Like my colleagues, I'm white. Like them, I'm college-educated. I only feel the full force of the difference at events like the baby shower, or when I use a word that's too big or too specific, or when the psychologist asks everyone at the office which wedding cake she should pick for her daughter and I am the only person on a staff of 22 voting for the one with fewer candy curlicues.

The song howls, "Back Home Again in Indiana" -but I'm not home, not really, and maybe it was naive of me to assume that I was. Indiana is on my birth certificate, but my parents are college professors, and it's more accurate to say I was born in academia. Babies are obstacles, in academia. They interfere with dissertation deadlines and strain skimpy graduate stipends and cry during lectures. They're accepted when properly timed, but they certainly do not merit spun-sugar rattles or games with pureed meat or a fake cake constructed entirely of disposable diapers.

Academia is its own country, with its own rhythms and rules. And every time I hope that I've transcended it -that I can blend in, assimilate, pass- it wrenches me home.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Devices and Desires

Every so often, the Big Questions arise. Why am I living? Why do squirrels exist? How on earth have I failed, in the first 28 years of my life, to read any P.D. James?

I like a good literary novel as much as the next girl (OK, probably more than the fabled Next Girl, who, as far as I can divine from the advertising directed her way, is a bible-thumping shopaholic mom on a diet.) But I also like mysteries. Especially British mysteries. Especially British mysteries with a literary tinge.

And I missed P.D. James?! This is a travesty. The only upside I can see is that I now get to read everything she's ever written all at once, in a kind of murderous binge. The lady is old. And prolific. Hooray!

Like all good genre artists, James exploits the tension between narrative thrust and literary divagation. Or, to put it another way, between bones and flesh. She's not above rapid advancement of the plot:

"The Whistler's fourth victim was his youngest, Valerie Mitchell, aged fifteen years, eight months and four days, and she died because she missed the 9:40 bus from Easthaven to Cobb's Marsh."

But neither does she shy away from dipping deeper, from tarrying over detail or losing herself in speculation:

"He thought: In youth we take egregious risks because death has no reality for us. Youth goes caparisoned in immortality. It is only in middle age that we are shadowed by the awareness of the transitoriness of life. And the fear of death, however irrational, wa surely natural, whether one thought of it was annihilation or as a rite of passage. Every cell in the body was programmed for life; all healthy creatures clung to life until their last breath. How hard to accept, and yet how comforting, was the gradual realization that the universal enemy might come at last as a friend."

Also, there are many gratuitous descriptions of landscapes, baked goods, and caffeinated beverages, which I take as a clear exhortation toward tea.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Save it, Daylight

One of the musical groups for which I routinely sub has representation, and because I'm on the agency's email roster, twice each year I receive an email like this:

Hi, everyone,

Daylight Savings time ends this weekend. Turn your clocks back 1 hour before you go to bed on Saturday night Oct 31 (Halloween)

Kathryn & Martha
Kathryn XXXXX, Artist Liaison

Some would call this spam. I call it yummy. I want an agent! Not just for music, but for life. Someone to email me important reminders, organize my life into neat little printable itineraries, book my jobs, vacations, spouses, etc. Why can't I have someone to tell me where to go and what to do there? Someone to alert me to all the potential hephalump pits in my path before I fall in?

Speaking of which, folks, it's time to turn back your clocks. Minus agents, we'll just have to represent each other.