Monday, December 15, 2014

Ethno-music0-historico-biography: My cassette collection! Cruisin' Classics, Vol III

I recently sold my car--my '96 Honda Accord, that I've had since '01. This was my first car and I really wanted to keep it forever. Largely because it had a tape player and I have a lot of tapes that are irreplaceable.

But, alas, the car wasn't going to make it around the world with me. (Note: I have no plans to go around the world via car. Yet.) So now I have nothing to play my tapes in. But I still got those tapes. And, yeah, I am definitely going to tell you about them. Starting with the tape that was probably in my possession the longest:

This tape is from a promotion at Shell. I think my family had several volumes of this--this is Vol. III, and it's clearly the best. Look at the playlist! (Or... song list? What did we call the list of songs on a cassette?)

If you can't make out the pictures, the songs are

  1. Chuck Berry -- Johnny B. Goode
  2. Jerry Lee Lewis -- Great Balls of Fire
  3. The Everly Brothers -- All I have to do is dream
  4. The Temptations -- My Girl
  5. Rick Nelson -- Travelin' Man
  6. Buddy Holly -- That'll Be the Day
  7. Fats Domino -- Blueberry Hill
  8. The Chiffons -- He's So Fine
  9. The Four Tops -- Reach Out I'll Be There
  10. The Beach Boys -- I Get Around

I've had this tape for so long, I can't even estimate how many times I've listened to it. Suffice to say, I can--and gladly will--bust out with the lyrics for "Johnny B. Goode" any time, night or day. ("Any time, night or day" is part of the Everly Bros. song.) Some of these songs are better for blasting with the windows down.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure if this coupon is still good.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 256: Mary S. Mallard, Union Looters (#256)

Mary S. Mallard, "Union Looters" (1864/1972) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Mary Mallard spent part of the last year of the Civil War at a plantation owned by her mother; and here's her memoir of the mostly awful Yankees who came and stole all their stuff. Which brings up some interesting stuff, like: jeez, but these women come off somewhat privileged. I mean, when a man comes in with a gun, Mary continues to argue with them; and continues to think that they have the right of history on their side.

Which is probably why my favorite parts are when she reports how the plantation servants (she never says "slaves") react to the Yankees coming and stealing all the white people's property. I mean, I easily can imagine that the freedmen really do complain to Mary--but I don't know that they really mean what they say.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Goals, tasks, milestones for 2015, part 1: Goals

Friends of mine in my online fiction critique group were talking the other day about goals and milestones for 2015. Actually, we were talking about goals, until one member made the distinction between things you are in charge of (like writing more) and things that you are not the sole arbiter of (like getting published), which is the distinction between self-set goals and other-influenced milestones. (Pretty great distinction, right? That's why I'm friends with these people.)

Another member made a further distinction: her ethos remained the same--become a better writer, be a good person, etc.--but the concrete steps that she could take would change over the years or be broken down into discrete tasks for that overarching goal. (If you're like me, and I hope you're not, you might make the further distinction between abstract goals and concrete tasks.)

So I've been thinking about my New Year's Resolutions, which I don't really do seriously, but enjoy the same way I enjoy throwing salt over my shoulder: I don't really believe, it's fun, and just in case...

In 2014, I didn't have resolutions so much as a spreadsheet to keep track of various goals and ideas. I will post-mortem that spreadsheet in 2015 and see what I did and didn't do. Teaser: I did not learn to draw.

But for now, I want to start sketching out those three lists for 2015: abstract goals that I set for myself; concrete tasks that I set for myself to reach those goals; and some milestones that depend on other people that I would like to work towards or see. Actually, today I'll probably just talk about


Goal: Be happy.
Feels somewhat silly to write, but honestly, I am someone who has a history of muddling through somehow.

Take, for instance, that time I lived in England for six months. They were not happy six months; and I eventually got into a survivable routine of work and coming home to dinner and watching TV with my girlfriend of the time. Nothing terrible, but I wasn't thriving. Now, I could've tried to make some drastic changes in order to break out. But instead, I largely took the safe route of routine. Which resulted in me being pretty even-keeled in a content to blah state for six months. Which brings us to goal two:

Goal: Be more open and adventurous.
Pretty self-explanatory. I sure can spend an evening quite comfortably watching TV or a movie. Ah, comfort.

But maybe if I push myself out of my comfort zone a little, I'll discover some thing I wouldn't otherwise have known about. Leading to increased happiness.

Goal: Give back.
I've been so really touched by all the mentorship and helping hands as I've changed careers; and the world is really a terrible place sometime, especially for women and minorities and, urgh, I just want to punch something some days.

So, I'd like to give back, both to pay back (or forward?) for the mentorship I had; and to help people who otherwise get slighted by the system. (And of course, as studies have shown, volunteering and gratitude are important to long-term happiness and health.)

Goal: Take care of yourself.
Especially while I was at MakerSquare, my self-care regime took a nose-dive: I hardly exercised, never meditated, and only once wrote morning pages. I can let some of that slide, but not all.

I think self care also leads into the next topic:

Goal: Be a better friend.
Maybe I haven't been a bad friend, exactly--though I did recently write a response to an email that was 11 months old. And here's the thing: I like being around people. I like being a friend. Being a friend makes me happy. (Which is why I associate it with self care.)

But sometimes it's easier to say no, to stay home with Netflix rather than go to a bar. And hey, that's a valid option sometimes. Maybe most of the time. But at the end of the day, there are going to be some times when being with friends makes me happier than watching Netflix.

Goal: Say no.
This is mostly directed at myself, since I have a tendency to be interested in everything and everyone and more more! It's a problem because then I don't have the time or energy to do everything as well as it deserves to be done.

Another way to put this would be Focus. Instead of doing a dozen projects--here's an app, here's two short stories, here's three screenplays, and four languages I want to learn!--just focus on what you can reasonably do. And do those well.

Goal: Embrace the pain.
Oh, that sounds way too serious for what I mean. Would it sound better if I used the developer term "pain point"? That is, when you're developing something, you'll find that some issues are particularly difficult. During my final projects, I definitely had some pain points as I tried to work through some issues. Amazingly--but more like unsurprisingly--my favorite moments in all of those were when I made some breakthrough on my pain points.

In other words: when you focus on a project, don't get put off if you run into difficulties.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 255: Annie Parker, Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman (#255)

Annie Parker, "Passages in the Life of a Slave Woman" (1853) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

Really, I should tag every blog post with "race" and "class" and "gender" and probably a few other tags as well. For instance: "ability/disability" is an axis of normativity--the often invisible struggle to define what counts as normal, as Other--that I'm really only beginning to become aware of. I mean, we tend to label a story about black people as having to do with race in a way that we wouldn't label a story about white people. And yet, even if it's a story just about white people, there's lots of race involved.

(A: Remember, "white" is a relatively new construct for race, and in the old days, people used to talk about everything from "the Irish race" to "the Alpine race." B: New favorite exemplary quote, from Billy the Kid: talking about a boss named Tunstall, "who was the only man that treated me like I was decent and white." For more fun, Tunstall was Irish and the Lincoln Country War might have had to do with Irish/English immigrant hostility. Totally unrelated but still fun trivia: Billy the Kid was born in NYC.)

Anyway, enough about my general failings to correct my privileged position, let's move on to the story, which is all about privileges:

  • the privilege of the white male slave owner to make a mistress of a slave;
  • the relative privilege of the slave mistress compared to the other slaves;
    • a pretty common trope in slave literature, that of the slave who doesn't fit with the other slaves;
  • the privilege of the slave owner to sell away any inconvenient slave, as Mr. Lee does here with his slave son, Jerry, who looks so much like him;
  • the privileges of knowledge and ignorance: the narrator who knows all, Mr. Lee who knows--and hushes--all, the kind Northern mistress of the house who knows nothing because it would hurt her too much and no one wants to give the nice lady any pain.

It's also a super Southern Gothic story, about two slave siblings, separated by slavery, who decide to get married; and the narrator's attempts to prevent that incest without letting anyone know. And you know what the solution is to the hurt caused by slavery? Mr. Lee simply sells away the daughter that he kept. Remember: this is also his daughter that he's selling away.

What's really killer to me is the title, as an added layer of misery: this isn't an exceptional story about people selling away their family or what's stolen from people by slavery. This is simply some passages in the life of a slave woman. Check out that indefinite article: "a Slave Woman" could be any slave woman. It could be many slave women. This could be going on all the time, says this story, written in 1853.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Master (2012) and the haunted human face

How much of The Master--Paul Thomas Anderson's movie about an alcoholic seaman and the charismatic master of a Scientology-like cult--is made up of close-ups on faces?

There's a lot of very intense dialogue scenes that are all shot-reverse shot, either over the shoulder or from the POV of the interlocutors (so that, for instance, we're not looking over Joaquin's shoulder at Amy Adams, but staring directly at her, as he would be).

Even when we're not technically in a close-up, many of the shots are focused on faces, with settings and objects fuzzing out into the background. (The ur-shot of this film might be the sort of department store portrait photography that Joaquin's character falls into after the war: faces on a blank screen.)

It is, in a way, indicative of the type of movie this is, almost like a Philip Roth story: not a lot of incident, but a lot of character.

And there is a lot of character in these actors and their faces. (Another object lesson of the importance of casting.) Joaquin, with his high-waisted pants (the importance of costume!), moves almost as if he's been broken in half; and with his scarred lip, his face really is broken in half, with half of it smiling and laughing, never quite touching the other half. (The converse to the half is the double and there's certainly something double here between the Master and the Margarita-drinker. Also, for doubles/repeats, check out the Master's real name: Lancaster Dodd. So many ds, so many consonant/vowel/consonant collections!)

It's the kind of film that could survive a term paper. And it is enjoyable in its own way. (That way being "for those who like stories where not much happens.") But I'm not entirely surprised that it didn't do so well at the box office. Staring at Joaquin Phoenix's twisted face for two hours is not everyone's idea of fun.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 254: Bernard Malamud, The Mourners (#254)

Bernard Malamud, "The Mourners" (1955) from Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s:

The LoA headnote to this story talks about how Malamud wasn't just writing about Jews, but about the human experience--through Jews. And, look, Malamud even said as much, so that proves it, right?

Which feels a little odd as the intro to a story where one of the central interactions is one Jew asking another if he's a Jew or Hitler. See, Kessler is a horrible old man who started out as a horrible young man: he quarrels too much to hold a job (not such a problem with Social Security), is too dismissive to have any friendships with his neighbors, and, oh yeah, he abandoned and forgot his wife and children.

So when Kessler fights one more time with the janitor/super, the landlord Gruber decides to throw him out. Which, predictably, doesn't go quite as planned. Kessler refuses to move; and when he's thrown out physically, he doesn't move from the pile of his junk. (The LoA headnote makes a "Bartleby the Scrivener" comparison, understandably.) Eventually, his neighbors move him back in, and even Gruber is moved by some notion of something being mourned.

"Ah, Kessler! Ah, humanity!"

(Sorry for the "Bartleby" paraphrase, but it's a running joke since college to end long perorations with "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!")

The big split between this and "Bartleby"--besides the super-Jewish characters and setting--is how the narrative wanders between characters. So we see the world from Gruber's POV, where everything is a disaster waiting to happen: take the stairs and you'll break your neck; buy an apartment building and the front will fall off; fight with a tenant and you'll have a stroke.

Alternately, we see the world only a little from Kessler's POV, getting more info about him rather than through him; though we do get a glimpse of him at the end, a man who has already faced all the disasters of the world--and brought them on himself.

Which may be why his question to Gruber--"Are you Hitler or a Jew?”--is both sensible and ridiculous. To Kessler, all disaster comes from outside and is part of history, unavoidable. At the same time, all this started because Kessler is a mean old man, not exactly an innocent.

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 253: Sheila Hibben, Eating American (#253) (Catching up)

Sheila Hibben, "Eating American" (1932) from American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes:

Sheila Hibben was both food consultant to the Roosevelt White House (before the First Lady and Hibben parted ways) and a restaurant/food writer for the New Yorker. She was also (the LoA headnote tells us) an early proponent of local cuisine.

In this essay, "local" means American regional. As she says (paraphrased), we get all het up about the extinction of the grizzly but not about that other American classic: South Carolina Hoppin' John. She also takes aim at food corporatization, or at least at one radio skit advertising a non-bake pie.

It's a lot of fun to read this short and vivid essay, since Hibben really doesn't pull any punches or sugar-coat her feelings that, as Americans, we need to celebrate our American food. What a tragedy it would be to lose dumplings, she says, since this country was founded on and fueled by them.

As for the final page, a recipe for codfish cooked over salt pork, I don't really know what to say.

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 252: Philip Roth, You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings (#252) (Catching up)

Philip Roth, "You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" (1959) from Philip Roth: Novels & Stories 1959–1962:

Here's where I tell you, with a palpably false nonchalant air, that I took a class taught by Philip Roth at Bard College. The topic: the novels of Philip Roth. At that time, it offended my sense of literary propriety to let an author both write the books and then provide commentary on them; but damn if I would let that chance slip by.

(Or, as one friend who didn't get into the class asked, "Did you play the Jew card in your application essay?" Yes, yes, I did. I oughta get something for six-hours a week in Hebrew school.)

And this story is very Rothian. He's not what you'd call a plot-driven writer. Most of his books revolve around very little incident and very much character examination. So here, our first incident is a guy cheating on a personality quiz, a comedy chestnut I've used myself. See, our ex-con and attempted-straight arrow Alberto is so tightly wound about trying to go straight, that he'll lie to do it.

And this event is key because... well, OK, it's not really key: it puts the narrator and Albie together, they end up as friends, and then... well, it's not like anything really big happens because of that friendship. At one point, the real straight arrow narrator gets sent to the principal's office, where he's confronted with his permanent record, which leads to a small thematic climax with this one teacher who got fired because he was a Communist.

Right, so, not a lot happens plot-wise: three kids and one teacher meet and interact in a number of scenes. But thematically and character-wise, it's a rich stew of repeating images and some fun writing. For instance, the narrator--while a super-straight arrow--is friends with the two ex-juvies, who are pretty different from each other.
Where Albie was a hippopotamus, an ox, Duke was reptilian. Me? I don’t know; it is easy to spot the animal in one’s fellows
Which is a sentence that oughter be tweeted.

(I don't know why, but something about reading New Jersey/New York fiction makes me want to avoid saying "ought to" instead of "oughta" and "oughter.")

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 251: Bryan Curtis, Friday Night Tykes (#251) (Catching up)

Bryan Curtis, "Friday Night Tykes" (2013) from Football: Great Writing about the National Sport:

I like to think of myself as an easy-going, live-and-let-live sort of person, but there are some substantial holes in that blanket statement. One of those holes is sports: I used to play and love soccer; I used to be a varsity fencer (foil); I loved playing ping pong at MakerSquare. (Check out my blog from then, which has a ping pong tag.)

And yet, reading Bryan Curtis's article about youth league football in Texas made my skin crawl. It's not that the youth league is committed to playing football, a sport that has a demonstrated negative effect on a statistically significant portion of pro athletes. (Although there is that.) It's not that the pretty conservative town/exurb of Allen raised taxes to build a large new stadium. (Although there is something there; would they have raised taxes to build something like a homeless or rape crisis shelter?)

It's really everything around the fetishization of football: the hero worship of little kids; the bleacher-parenting of adults pushing their kids--take this supplement, don't take no for an answer from the coach (or, presumably from anyone else); the toxic masculinity that makes parents upset to have a daughter (and then name her after a football coach).

See, here's the thing: I like competing in sports. I like pushing myself. I like playing in a team.

But when I'm not on the field, I get on with my life. Pushing kids into this world where this is the one thing that matters doesn't feel like the right way to build a sustainable society that values the right things.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 250: Edgar Allan Poe, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (#250) (Catching up)

Edgar Allan Poe, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" (1845) from Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales:

And so, following 12 solid weeks of learning web development, where I fell off my schedule, here I am hoping to catch up with the last four weeks of LoA stories. Luckily, my first story, back on the horse, is my good friend Poe.

Which reminds me of a story about Kafka: we tend to think of Kafka as very existential and dark and brooding. As--dare I say it?--Kafkaesque. But back in his day, Kafka would sometimes read his work to friends and have them rolling on the floor.

Poe tends to get a somewhat similar treatment: he's a Halloween author, whose stories of mad killers get brushed off once a year. Or, for those in grad school, he's one of the canon, who is constantly commenting on the American condition.

And so, the LoA headnote informs us that this story--about a lunatic asylum run by the lunatics--might be "a satire on democracy, an invective against abolitionism, or a parody of writing by Dickens and Willis—or, as seems quite possible, all of these."

Yes, OK, sure. (Though let's be clear about that Abolition reading and its problems: the asylum here is in the South (of France), so check; but all the weirdness of the house's inhabitants is explained away--incorrectly, but plausibly--as having to do with their Southernness and oldness. It's less a satire on a failed slave revolution than it might be a comment about how underclass people tend to mimic the upperclass.)

I'm not saying that there's nothing to be read into here. Only that we shouldn't miss the layers of humor: not just that the lunatics run the asylum, but that the observer--even when this is pointed out to him--still thinks that they might have a point.