My friend Walter’s newest musings in Afronaut. Go read it. Seriously.

Quiet Bubble

tinyletter 48I have a newsletter, Afronaut, which gives updates on my writing, podcasts, shakycam videos, and other cultural productions that are out there in the big, bad world beyond this humble blog. I also recommend things, and use those recommendations as excuses to ramble on entertainingly about how culture’s affected me.

New issues of Afronaut go live every six weeks or so, heavy on the “or so.” We’re on issue #2, plus an issue #0 for you comics nerds out there, but it won’t take you long to catch up.

You can, and should, subscribe to it right here, if you’re at all interested in what I do. (And, if you’re not, why are you reading this?) It’ll come straight to your inbox. If you’re old-school, the letters are archived here.

Tell your friends, shout the news from the rooftops, yodel it into the mountainside, whatever.

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Commonplace: E. M. Forster, Howards End

“Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.

Margaret hoped that for the future she would be less cautious, nor more cautious, than she had been in the past.”

–E. M. Forster, Howards End


Great New York Timesarticle on the loss of narration in contemporary fiction, film, and television. It identifies one of the key problems I have with much of twentieth century fiction–a lack of narration or a lack of a narrative focus outside of the character we’re seeing the world through. The narrators of George Eliot,Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and other Victorian writers functioned as part of the story, providing us with insight, interiority, cultural cues, and argument about the key issues of the day. One of the reasons I detested Seth Grahame Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies mash-up is the reason why I know some of my students liked it–he removed all of the narration. The novel moves through the familiar set pieces of the novel and where Austen’s narrator gave us character interiority and important discourse on the narrow world of the late 18th century/early 19th century gentry, Smith puts zombies. For students trained on Hemingway and other modern American writers to read for setting and action, this makes utter sense. Not that Hemingway doesn’t give you interiority, but it’s often incidental to the narrative he’s telling. For Victorian writers, the individual character’s struggle to come to grips with their ever changing world is often times the point. The events surrounding him or her are incidental to this process. But they don’t narrow the novel down to just that character because everyone is going through the same struggle. This article perhaps resonated with me more because I’m teaching Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time this term, and it is a prime example of a novel without narration. We see everything through Christopher’s perspective, and he isn’t interested or capable of giving us much more than what he experiences. In some respects, the novel is a meditation on how overwhelming our world is, but I find Christopher’s vision of the perfect world at the end of the novel disturbing. It’s a world where everyone who could or would interact with Christopher has died. He’s left to live his days without human interaction and thus, without stories. It’s chilling. While I don’t agree with Steve Almond’s point about television entirely–I like television shows that give you a lot of exposition though–his larger point about the function of narrative is spot on.

Stealing Tide

Excellent and bizarre New York Magazine piece by Ben Paynter on the blackmarket trade in Tide laundry detergent. Yep, that’s right. Tide is being stolen and traded in bulk numbers. Key paragraph for me:

While clothes were getting easier to clean, Americans were starting to own more of them. Today, journalist Elizabeth Cline reports in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, the average U.S. consumer buys 68 pieces of clothing a year—more than one purchase a week—much of it cheaply made. Launder those items with Tide, and they take on a uniform smell and feel that consumers have come to associate with quality. “It doesn’t matter where the clothes come from, if you wash them with Tide, they do have almost this prestige wash to them,” says Maru Kopelowicz, a global creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, which researches consumer attitudes toward Tide as the brand’s lead advertising firm.

Now I don’t use Tide because I prefer biodegradable cleaning products. Not for the green movement aspect, but because I have cats and Oliver isn’t the brightest. I mean, he stalks my bathroom sink and puts his nose into everything. So, I buy Target’s natural brand. And it’s $6 versus $15 for the same amount of Tide. I don’t notice a prestige wash difference, but I have to sort of admire the creativity behind the using Tide as a resell commodity.

Song of the Day: Keren Ann, “Au Coin du Monde”

At least once or twice a year, a fashion magazine or two will have a feature on how to live like a French girl. This month it’s Matchbook Mag. The height of fashionability and undefinable chicness, the French girl icon looms large in the insecure recesses of every American fashion editor because somehow we uncouth American miss the mark. I personally think we’re trying too hard, but maybe that’s because I’ve being trying to have more fun with my closet. I am, after all, the person wearing neon yellow pants today. At any rate, the article and the gentle grey day sent me to Francoise Hardy and then Keren Ann.

56 Up

I’ve long been a fan of Michael Apted’s Up series, and I often show bits and pieces to my classes, particularly of 21 Up, since my students tend to be closest to that age group. I normally use it as a way of opening up conversations about class distinctions in contemporary British culture (contemporary being a literary marker for things post 1970). But I also love the series because the participants are around my parents’ age. Comparisons to modern reality tv abound, but the series lies somewhere between reality tv, documentary, and autobiography. In fact, I prefer to think of it as autobiography. One of the reasons I show 21 Up to my classes is for the exchange in the pub with Jackie, Lynn, and Sue about class. Apted clearly has one vision of their lives based on class expectations. He deliberately compares them to Suzy, the daughter of an aristocrat who had a public and messy divorce. On the one hand, they are exasperated that he is limiting their prospects based on assumptions, and on the other, they feel badly for Suzy who has had to go through the limelight of both being in the series and her parents’ divorce. Apted is trying to control the outcome here; he is making a documentary about class, after all, and while he admires these women, he’s got a narrative to maintain at this stage. But none of them let him have that narrative. They define themselves.

The participants seem to know that in inviting Apted back into their lives, they are making conscious choices. And they are highly aware of the class implications behind Apted’s often less than tactful questions. He gets as exasperated as they do, really, and in some ways, they understand the implications of doing this project better than Apted does. After all, it’s their lives on screen; it’s what they’ve chosen to reveal and what is gleaned from their unconscious hesitations, body language, and discussion of the future. Nick–the voice speaking at the end of the video below–is right; it’s not an accurate picture of the participants. No autobiography is though; all autobiography, even in this setting, is a performance of sorts. They all come to the film with their own motives. Peter, who has sat out the last three films because he didn’t like what he saw of himself in 28 Up, is doing this one to promote his band. John used the film to promote a charity cause in previous installments, and Paul has used the show to travel back to England. And Charles still refuses to do it again. As a whole, however, it functions as the origin of the show intended–to give a snapshot view into how class and education form people’s lives. The class elements may have faded to the background, but as a snapshot view into a person’s life, it works.

Here’s the New York Times write up on Apted. And here’s the much more informative review from Michael Winerip.

Thinking Like Sherlock

I’m still more than a little focused on Sherlock Holmes–an essay more than likely on contemporary portrayals and mental illness is brewing–so this essay from Maria Konnikova about “Do You Think Like Sherlock Holmes?” is an interesting take on Holmes’s mental prowess. One of Konnikova’s key points is that Doyle’s Holmes is able to both see and observe because he isn’t cluttering his mind with thousands of tasks at once. Indeed, the appeal of Doyle’s Holmes, at least for me, is that his skills don’t seem so far out of the reach of most people. He is simply more mindful of the world around him than most of us choose to be.

Mindfullness is something I’ve also been thinking about lately. Both of my friends/collaborators on the PerPo project are  extraordinarily productive individuals who focus on work/life balance in positive ways. Most of the technology I use comes from recommendations given by them, and Natalie always asks smart questions about what we want to accomplish and why and what’s a reasonable time frame. And as we learned this summer, writing in a truly collaborative fashion is much, much slower than writing on your own. But rewarding, so rewarding. Admittedly, I’m more nose to the grindstone, and I’ll just put my head down to get stuff done. It can be productive, but doesn’t always produce a great work/life balance.  This is not a resolution, per se, I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions; nevertheless, I want to be more mindful in my life. Take more time to reflect versus just plowing on ahead.