TOAST: A Christmas Quartet

I’ve recently discovered the British company Toast. I adore their lookbook; just the general winter wonderland of quite comfort depicted there is so enticing even if it is designed to sell you pjs and nightgowns. For Christmas, they’re producing a quartet of Christmas stories by poet and writer Michael Smith and shot by Nick Seaton.

The first video is available here  and the story is available here. Enjoy a little festiveness.


Song of the Day: Noisettes, “Rag Top Car”

Growing up in Dallas, you learn quickly to appreciate the freedom symbolized in owning or having access to a car. I don’t necessarily miss having a car in a city that has good public transport, and I adore taking trains of all sorts. But there is this kind of nostalgic song storytelling around cars that trains and planes just don’t seem to produce. Perhaps it’s because in a car, the music you listen to is for you alone. You can sing as loud as you want and only disturb those travelling with you, who, if they’re any good at road tripping, are singing along just as loudly as you are. “Rag Top Car” is going on my current happy driving mix, Betteredge. Yes, it’s named for Gabriel Betteredge. I’m ridiculously fond of him and The Moonstone.

Holiday Anticipation

Christmas, as has been documented on this blog before is my favorite time of year. I’ve gone crafting crazy, and my house currently looks like my laundry from Thanksgiving in Dallas, grading, the beginnings of next semester prep (I plan classes when I’m stressed), and Christmas crafting have all exploded at the same time. As soon as this set of papers are graded, the Christmas decorating will commence. And then on to the next set of papers and some poetry index checking. I have a carefully plotted schedule of work and fun (and maybe a yoga class or two at the park near my house). I’m already planning all the things I want to go see in Dallas when I’m on break. If anyone wants to join, the list and links are below:

Chihuly at the Arboretum (link): I missed it this summer, and while $20 is a bit steep, I still want to go. Or does anyone want to loan my their Arboretum membership?

A Christmas Carol at the Dallas Theater Center

The Toulouse Lautrec exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Any other holiday fun suggestions in Dallas or FSM? I’m down for holiday fun, just as soon as these essays get graded.

Autism and the Spectrum

My university’s one book program kicks off in the spring with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s narrator is on the spectrum, or at least, Haddon uses facets of autism and Asperger’s to craft the character. Haddon, himself, claims that Christopher is “‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties.” While Haddon read a handful of newspaper pieces and magazine articles on the topic, he didn’t deliberately set out to create a character on the spectrum. Rather, Haddon crafted a novel about an outsider; in our culture, we apparently need to label outsiders as disabled. In my cultural studies class, we’ve been looking at Sherlock Holmes all semester. One of the things that has struck me the most in looking at Holmes all semester is just how differently this character has been interpreted for our times. I adore Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Elementary. Yet, both of those incarnations of Holmes labels him deliberately as disabled–“high functioning sociopath” and possibly asexual or a recovering addict, with a recover companion. Tyler Cowen avers that “the most fully developed autistic character in the Western literary tradition.” Yet, Cowen, Moffat, Gatiss, and others grossly misread Doyle’s Holmes with such labels. Doyle’s Holmes is a quintessential aesthete, gentleman, and his obsessive reading of the world is merely the heightened way Victorians themselves had to read their world. Nothing about Holmes as constructed by Doyle puts him outside the pale, particularly when you consider the wide range of forms that late-Victorian masculinity could take. Moreover, the slightly obsessive, specialized scientist is a fixture of Victorian fiction crime and sensation fiction. It us, our modern culture, that seeks to label Holmes’s abilities as disability. Haddon, in his posting on the autism and his novel goes on to say this about labels:

labels say nothing about a person. they say only how the rest of us categorise that person. good literature is always about peeling labels off. and treating real people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off. a diagnosis may lead to practical help. but genuinely understanding another human being involves talking and listening to them and finding out what makes them an individual, not what makes them part of a group.

I think Haddon’s comments here about labels speaks to the ways our culture blithely labels anyone outside a carefully cultivated norm that I’m not sure in fact exists. I’m not in anyway discounting the relief and knowledge that comes from accurate diagnosis of autism and Asperger’s; these are real conditions and should be treated with respect and compassion. But as this excellent New York Magazine piece on the subject points out, there’s a vast difference between “Asperger’s, autism, or the spectrum—those very real afflictions that can bring untold hardship to the people who suffer from them and to their families” and the ways we “deploy” those words ” to describe some murky hybrid of egghead and aloof.” I think some of our need to label–and I’m as guilty of this as anyone else–is that we all feel our behaviors or interests are not normal. Labeling lets us explain away personality quirks that don’t seem to fit the accepted norms for a society in constant flux.

Mel Brooks new box set

Mel Brooks has a new comedy box set out (Jordan, not on your life are you allowed to purchase this before Christmas) and New York Magazine scored a great interview with him. The best part is him telling the story of how he met Anne Bancroft, his wife for 45 years.

She was doing a guest spot on the Perry Como show. He had Jimmy Durante and Anne Bancroft. It was a great show, and I was in the audience for rehearsal because I was working on a show called All American on Broadway with Charles Strouse, Buddy Strouse who wrote Bye Bye Birdie. He said he had to stop by and see Anne Bancroft, she’s doing something at the Actor’s Studio and I’m going to be playing piano for her. I said Anne Bancroft? Really. Wow. Beautiful and funny. And she came out in a white dress, and I was in love. That’s it. BAM. That’s it. So with the end of her number, it was just a rehearsal, they weren’t filming or anything, I said, “Anne Bancroft! I’m Mel Brooks! And I love you!” And she laughed, and after rehearsal, she came up to Buddy Strouse, and I was introduced, and she said, “So you love me?” And I said, “I do, I do.” So we walked outside, and she said “I need a cab,” and I whistled. And she told me later that whistle sealed it.

Just so funny and warm and absurd; in effect, Brooks through and through.

Commonplace: Jack Gilbert, “Failing and Flying”

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
But just coming to the end of his triumph.”

~ Jack Gilbert, “Failing and Flying” reposted from Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish.

I don’t normally comment on commonplaces, but I love the humane approach Gilbert takes here in thinking about failure. Sometimes failing isn’t failing at all.

Doctor Who Christmas special minisode

If you’re like me, then you’re still recovering from “The Angels Take Manhattan.” (Those damn, damn angels.) To tide you and me over until Christmas day, here is both the new minisode of Doctor Who, entitled “The Great Detective” and the trailer. While the title of the minisode is only a sly reference to Sherlock Holmes, the idea of detectives run amok in Victorian London at Christmas is enticing. (I’ve also read an essay recently making some explicit links between Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor.) So is the nice allusion below to Mary Poppins. It will be the new series’ fifth outing to the Victorian period. (I counted for an essay I’m working on that will now more than likely include this episode just as soon as I get to watch it.) And the minisode clearly indicates that the Doctor is more traumatized than ever from the loss of Rory and Amy.

Trailer for the Christmas episode here. Jenna Louise Coleman looks to be a fitting companion, even if she has the uphill task of replacing Amy and Rory.

Big Bang Theory Flash Mob

I adore the concept of the flash mob, and this one at a taping of The Big Bang Theory doesn’t really need my help in promoting it, but it’s such a joyful mash up of genres that I’m posting it anyway. It even makes that Carly Rae Jepsen song bearable.

Details behind the flash mob here. I think this kind of spontaneous, exuberant collective performance is part of the new culture of quirk that I’m working on defining. The boundaries of who is a performer and what constitutes amateur and professional is constantly blurred in the culture of quirk.

NPR Field Recordings: The Civil Wars

The Civil Wars, like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and a host of other bands coming out the new folk movement are marked by their earnestness. There’s a sincerity to their music that’s appealing, but also a pervading sense of nostalgia. Indeed, I’d say that earnestness is part of the early 21st century culture of quirk that marks so much of what William Deresiewicz calls “upper middle brow“. It’s something I’m still mulling over, although I wish Deresiewicz had puzzeled out his thoughts more.