Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Facebook Haggadah

This year's big Passover meme is pretty great, even though the "Facebook version of [fill in the blank]" metameme is kind of played out. As is the phrase "played out." But I digress.

On writing

The other day, I talked with a new friend about The New Yorker's recent article on David Foster Wallace. My friend said he found the piece depressing, presumably for the reasons that any account of a talented writer who kills himself would be a downer. I, however, didn't find it depressing, perhaps because my threshold is higher (I rarely find sad movies depressing, either), but perhaps also because an account of an author struggling to write the way he wants to, and remaining mired in feelings of worthlessness or talentlessness -- well, it's hardly surprising. I've known quite a few writers who found it damn near impossible to take a compliment, to acknowledge the size and breadth of their talent. I want to be able to declare myself a writer on a regular basis, and to believe that I'm a good writer, with the potential to become a great one, but it's hard to hold onto ideas like that, to internalize what's already true and use that absorbed reality as a foothold, a way to climb to loftier heights. That's the goal, though -- to keep at it, and to keep getting better.

I say all of this because I've decided to start a new writing workshop. I'll use the Kibbutz as a home base, but otherwise, in many respects, it'll probably resemble the workshop I started last year with Elana Kupor. I want it to convene twice a month, and I want its members to be fiction writers who already have a pretty good command of dialogue, description, and so on -- the elements of fiction -- but want to kick their game up several notches. My selfish motivation: I want to write and revise enough material to put together a portfolio and apply to MFA programs this year. I'd love to be a grad student by fall of 2010.

My first clear memories of writing come from a time when I was very young. Maybe I was five; it's hard to know for sure. I had a series of books that came with cassettes, the idea being that you'd read along in the book as the voice on the tape read the story. I decided to make my own book/tape combos, recording suspenseful tales of an heroic collie (my favorite TV show was Lassie), but also recounting stories drawn from my everyday life. I'd write and record, for example, a scene in which my friend Jason and I encountered a new boy, expressed typical male aggression (we became territorial and didn't let him play with us), and later apologized and invited him into the fold. I still have a couple of the tapes that went with the homemade storybooks, and it's slightly shocking each time I hear my squeaky, exuberant voice coming at me from the distant past.

In middle school, I wrote poems to amuse my parents. I remember that I'd work on them before dinner; some nights I'd present my newest creations at the dinner table. I think there were limericks about hippos and such. By high school, my poetry had taken the turn most adolescent poetry takes: I was contemplating the Big Themes, reflecting profoundly on the tiny emotional shifts in each moment of life. I did occasionally write a poem with a sense of humor. A short one called "Almost Together," about the fact that even physical intimacy can't completely unite two people (all speculation; at this point, I'd never been kissed), actually won an award. I was also writing fiction, and one of my short stories, about environmental issues in Antarctica, received first prize in the junior division of Michigan's annual Future Problem Solving Scenario Writing contest. Finally, a prose sketch of mine won first place in a Detroit Free Press competition for young writers. All three honors accrued to me in the 9th grade, which I suppose makes that year my teenage heyday. I tried to replicate the success of that prize-winning sketch the following year, but the result was a wan imitation rather than an effective follow-up. Not until the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, when I attended Interlochen's inaugural month-long Creative Writing Institute, did my writing make another significant leap.

It was at Interlochen that I met Peter Markus, a thin man in his late twenties or early thirties with slightly sunken eyes and wild black hair. He was the Institute's fiction writing instructor, and the first task he assigned us was to go out into the Michigan woods and come up with the best sentence we could. It was exactly the kind of challenge I had been waiting for: an invitation to spend lots of mental energy in one concentrated daylong burst. I forget what sentence I came up with, but the message was clear: Even a single sentence is worth mildly obsessing about, but the obsession must be playful and free-wheeling to be useful. Those were the primary elements of that life-changing month -- freedom and a sense of play -- and those are the aspects of my writing life that I want to reclaim this year. Peter also encouraged us to attack the act of writing ferociously; that ferocity, that sense of urgency, is something I'd like to return to as well.

I met other young writers at Interlochen, and they impressed and inspired me greatly. When summer was over, I thought about joining Peter's ongoing writing workshop -- he lived in Detroit -- but the workload of my senior year was daunting, and I had college applications to think about. I eventually declined the workshop invitation, which I regret sometimes. Had I accepted, I would have been making a bold choice to prioritize creative writing in my life. When I went to Oberlin College later that year as a prospective student, my meeting with the director of the creative writing program almost convinced me not to make creative writing my major. The professor in charge of the program was in his last year, had a reputation as a hard-ass, and took an unforgiving view of my reading habits. Like many a nerdy high schooler, I had read quite a few Kurt Vonnegut novels; yet Vonnegut, the professor insisted, had only awarded two of his own works "A" grades (everything else got a "B" or below). His point: Don't get bogged down reading too many works by one writer; read many writers, but only read their best books. The high-handed way he presented this argument (which isn't a bad one) made me feel like a child and a fool, a silly, mixed-up kid with ridiculous priorities. Not until my first-year English T.A. encouraged me to declare a major in creative writing did I recover my will to do so, and my belief that I could.

I took classes in poetry, creative nonfiction, literary translation, and even playwriting, but I never got around to fiction. This was because I was intimidated by it, and because it was what I really wanted to do. And perhaps because the primary fiction professor, Dan Chaon, was semi-famous and known to be a bit of a hard-ass, and I wasn't sure my constitution and writing were up to the challenge. (After all, the showdown with the former program chair had almost taken the wind out of my sails completely.) I fell just two credits short of a full major when graduation came around (I completed my other major, Spanish) and escaped Oberlin without ever having taken a fiction writing class.

I remember starting a short story when I moved to my friend Judith's house in the fall of 2002. The change of scenery had inspired me to sit down at my Toshiba laptop, the one I'd had since 1997, and compose a story about a house very much like Judith's. After scoring an internship at Seattle Weekly and becoming consumed with my work there as a budding arts critic, my creative writing fell away. Over the years, I rarely wrote poems; even more rarely did I begin short stories. I knew somewhere in my mind and heart that I missed creative writing, but I was writing for a living now, and wasn't that the dream? Wasn't that enough? The answer, of course, was (and remains) no. Many established writers of fiction, like Curtis Sittenfeld, earn extra money and prestige by writing journalistic articles, but they don't abandon their fiction writing. In fact, their journalism might be fueling their fiction rather than simply running parallel to it. I left the Weekly in 2006 after the New Times merger and moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood so packed with writers that it's said to be more densely populated with them than any other in the nation. Still, I didn't write creatively.

It took returning to Seattle and attending a friend's brunch party to move me back in the right direction. At Andrew Ash's apartment, I met Elana Kupor, and my discussion with her about shifting creative writing to the back burner in life, and (in my opinion) how sad and unnecessary that is, inspired me to think about starting a workshop like the ones I'd loved in college. (This time, maybe I can also inject a little of Peters Markus' gonzo spirit into the proceedings.) Early in 2008, she and I started a biweekly prose workshop that lasted until the summer, when I decided to leave Seattle for parts east. I never made it, and I currently live at the Ravenna Kibbutz and feel that no matter what my career path might be -- and that's still a sizable conundrum -- there's no question that pursuing an MFA in fiction writing would be a meaningful way to spend my time and energy as the first decade of the new century comes to an end. I'm not particularly frightened by the prospect of studying for and taking the GRE, if that's required, or getting together the more logistical aspects of an application, including the notorious Statement of Purpose. What I'm petrified by is the notion of revising what I've already written (a multigenerational family drama set mostly in St. Louis) and creating something new to go along with it -- in short, making a portfolio. (Most MFA programs seem to want around 30 pages, and it's usually either necessary or strongly advisable to include two pieces.)

When I write these tasks out the way I've just done, they don't seem so overwhelming. Still, I have a mental block that becomes a behavioral block around actually sitting down, several nights a week, and working to make my dream a reality. I realized today what the problem might be: The proverbial blank page, or the first draft awaiting significant revision, offers infinite possibilities, an unending number of paths. This might also be my problem with life: Too many choices, too few clear signals about which roads to take. Seeing this parallel, I also see that breaking back into the messy business of writing, and revising, and re-revising, and receiving feedback with as thick a skin as possible, and becoming ultimately a student of writing the way a person becomes a student of Buddhism -- one who learns theory but also persistently engages in practice -- could be the key to unlocking my "stuckness" in life. Finding one's passion isn't always what's most difficult; having the courage to follow it can be an even bigger challenge. I hope that in starting again, in beginning another workshop with the sincere hope that it will flourish and help all involved to grow as writers and as people, that I can cultivate courage in myself, inspire it in others, and move closer to realizing my purpose and destiny. Because once you know what you want to do, all that remains is to do it.

One last note: When I read Tessa Hadley's story in The New Yorker, there were several moments that struck me. Each time, the narrator had communicated some simple truth about life, about how people are, about how I am. Really, what good fiction can do is help you figure out the riddles of existence, including your own. Take this passage:
Hilda rang her.
“Ally? Is that Ally? Remember me? I was the bitch in the supermarket. You’re having a hell of a time. Why don’t you come out here and yell about it?”
Ally felt remote from anyone who talked like this.
I've wondered for years why perfectly nice people who have a certain tone -- chipper, but also vaguely New Age and somewhat bossy -- drive me a little bit crazy. This brief passage paints Ally as a person like me, and Hilda as one of those well-meaning irritants. Then the story walks us through the ginger beginnings of their friendship, and I see a possible path to forming similar friendships in my own life. It's not as easy, of course, as reading a story and following its implicit instructions, but it's helpful to feel understood -- even by an author, someone I've never met -- and gently pushed out of my comfort zone into the possibility of doing things differently, even if it feels, at first, "remote" and strange and scary.

This, among other reasons, is why I want to write fiction: to capture moments -- truths -- like these and present them in a way that will resonate with people, and hopefully help them make sense of life as a whole, and of their own lives in particular.

I can haz ridiculous crush

Anya Garrett, the photographer/filmmaker/model/actress who starred in "Jewno," is perhaps my most accessible celebrity crush ever, inasmuch as she isn't Zooey Deschanel. Yet of course she remains well out of reach, and I have to question the wisdom of posting such a public crush announcement. Ms. Garrett, should you run across this post in your self-Googling adventures, please don't press charges. I'm silly and completely harmless. That said, if you're ever in Seattle, you should swing by the Kibbutz. (Actually, I'm not kidding about that part, and I promise to be on my best behavior if you do visit.)

Young love

The New Yorker's fiction isn't as uneven as its poetry, and I should read it more often. Tessa Hadley's recent "She's the One" is a fine, low-key tale of buried sorrow, sharply and straightforwardly written. Well worth a read. Plus, that photo!

Bipolar babies

Just in time for April Fools' Day, Philip has pointed out an Onion item about manic-depressive infants.

God for the godless

As if in response to Ron Aronson's Living Without God, Temple De Hirsch Sinai's Rabbi Daniel Weiner has authored Good God: Faith for the Rest of Us -- which, despite its unfortunate (though probably intentional) invocation of Festivus, sounds interesting. The two tomes would make a stellar one-two punch for any spiritually oriented book club. Which means maybe I should start one...

Jew-ish.com editor Leyna Krow made you a mix

Not surprisingly, it's all Jewy. You'll like it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again Until I'm 45

Attended a JDate mixer tonight for a proposed Jew-ish.com piece. Sadly, the event was lame in an exceedingly boring way, so there won't be an article after all.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Holy crap

Check out the trailer for Spike Jonze's upcoming Where the Wild Things Are. Screenplay by him and... Dave Eggers?

Hope springs eternal; it looks pretty damn wonderful to me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Maybe you think the joke's a bit stale because the movie came out a while ago, but you know what? This is still Jew-larious:

The LOLcat Passover story

Thanks to Debs, I'm able to share with you the most kittentastic holiday tale of them all:
TEH PASSOFUR STORI (lolcat version)

Oh hai! Teh Jooz and teh kittehs were lived in Egypts. Lifes were gud. Josiph had cote of mani of colorses and every kitteh listened to teh Andrew Lloyed Webers all teh day. Every kitteh wuz liek Happy Cat and tehre wuz cheezburgers.

But tehn Pharo wuz died. Oh noes! New Pharoz iz liek doggeh or Basement Cat. Maded Jooz and kittehs slaves. Sed DO NOT WANT! But wuz. Jooz sed, "Im in ur Egypts bilding ur piramids." Wuz not like piramid scheem u seez on nooz but like aktual piramid. Lifes are not gud. No nappings. No cheezburgers.

Pharaoh sez to Jooz: Babehs u no can haz. Kittehs secretly pleezed about teh nooz. Babehs are teh loud and taek attenshun away from kittehs so kittehs do not want. Pharaoh says kittehs can still has kittenses.

Mozis borned anyweh, adding to spekulashun taht Mozis wuz akshually a kitteh. Because of Mirium, who is speshul hoomin femunists liek, Pharo's dautur sees babeh Mozis in bullrushes, which iz plants kittehs eat when want to throw up on teh carpit latur. Dautur says, "WANT!" Kittehs think she mean teh bullrushes but means babeh. Silleh hoomin.

When Mozis no longer babeh but is hoomin, sed to Pharo: We can haz eggsodus? Pharo sed no can haz.

Ceiling Cat sended playgs to Egyptshuns. Wuz bad. Egyptshuns sai, "Oh noes!" Iz teh bluds, teh frogs, teh vermins, teh darknesses, teh boylz, teh hayl, teh beests, teh locusts, teh bugs, and teh striking of teh furst babehs.

Jooz puts lamb on door and kittehs eated it. Jooz and kittehs are spared from playgs. Kittehs espeshully spared cuz can see in teh darknesses and can chase teh frogs and teh locusts and teh mouses and eated tehm and maded cheezburgers out of teh cattle diseezed. Hoomans do not want, sez cheezburgers not koshur and from teh cattle diseez u will catch ur death. Kittehs ignore hoomins liek usual. Kittehs think playgs not so bad akshually. Is teh fud to nom and iz fewur babehs. Except teh hails, teh hailz iz bad for kittehs.

When Pharo's babeh was striked, Pharo sayed, "Do not want! Ok u can goes nao. Kthxbye." Teh Jooz and tehir kittehs packed stuffs quickly, teh kitteh toys and teh kitteh fud and teh kitteh brushes. No packeded litterbox because was going to desert wich is liek one giant litterbox. Hoomins had to bake teh breds quickli because spent time packing kittehs posesshuns. Maded matza out of cardboards. Matza does not has a flavur.

Indecisive Pharo is... indecisive. Changes his minds. Oh noes! Sends Egyptshuns after teh Jooz and teh kittehs, but is ok cuz kittehs run fast. Reach red seas which are not red. Hoomans willing to go into watur but kittehs no like water.

Charltun Hestun imitashun: Mozis is doing it pretti well akshually. With miteh and outstretchd paw, Ceiling Cat maded teh sea partz. Kittehs and hoomins walk through dry because kittehs do not liek watur.

Teh waturs close on teh Egyptshuns. Teh angels tehy are singing (angels are pretteh mean, akshually) but Ceiling Cat asks tehm to stop because angels tehy also can't sing veri well, like kittehs.

Teh Mirium and teh hoomins danced teh hole nite long but teh kittehs sleeped.



Jeffrey Toobin has an enjoyable article on Obama's Senate replacement in the latest New Yorker. Not only does it boast one of the wittier illustrations to run in the magazine of late (see above), its portrayal of Burris as "a figure of fun, because he was highly egocentric" -- so says former Chicago ward committeeman Alan Dobry -- offers the reader an opportunity for genuine schadenfreude. That Burris has already commissioned a mausoleum with "words of self-celebration carved into the wall," and that the achievements it records aren't overwhelmingly impressive, is entertaining enough; that he named his son Roland Jr. and his daughter -- wait for it -- Rolanda (not making this up) pretty much takes the cake. I've always loved The New Yorker's political profiles, and this one, in its sly way, posits an interesting idea:
In his very ordinariness, Burris may represent a triumph of sorts for the civil-rights movement, which was, at least in part, a struggle for black people to be seen as just like everybody else.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ten reasons I like "Heroes" (the first season, anyway)

1. The show borrows elements of the horror genre, including all the awful things that happen to Claire (best example: when her house is nuked and she comes out looking like the Toxic Avenger) as well as Sylar's chosen method of killing and the upsetting way it's depicted

2. Bad things happen to characters we don't think will get hurt (or brainwashed), making the show both more suspenseful and less formulaic than typical network TV

3. The many creative uses, throughout the season, of Matt Parkman's ability to read minds

4. The casting of Linderman (Malcolm McDowell) and Hiro's father (George Takei)

5. Claire's friendship with Zach, which is just affecting enough to be sorely missed when it's yanked away and much appreciated when it's restored

6. The pitch-perfect introduction of Claire's mother's ability

7. The show's comic-book soul, which excuses the cornier bits of dialogue and makes the cleverer ones seem like wonderful surprises

8. The decision to use subtitles when Hiro and Ando speak rather than making them both fluent English speakers

9. The show's tremendous knack for end-of-episode cliffhangers

10. Jack Coleman, who plays Claire's father, and whose performance throughout the season (and particularly in the episode "Company Man") deserves much acclaim

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Viva Sea-Tac"

Just heard the Robyn Hitchcock tune for the first time, thanks to KEXP. I love the lyrics:
People flocked like cattle to Seattle
After Kurt Cobain
And before him the rain

Hendrix played guitar just like an animal
Who's trapped inside a cage
And one day he escaped

Do you want to pay for this in cash?
Viva! Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva! Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva viva viva viva viva Sea-Tac
They've got the best computers and coffee and smack

Coming and going it has to be Boeing
The best form of defence is blow them up
In a regular cup

Have an espresso, You will? Oh I guess so
I feel my heart is gonna start to jump
'Cause it's wired to a pump

And the Space Needle points to the sky
The Space Needle's such a nice guy
But he never knows...
Viva Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac

All the Norwegians, man, you should see them
Out in Ballard looking soulful at the pines
And also the Swedes

All of the groovers came from Vancouver
And some of them came up from Oregon
In case you don't know

But the Space Needle points to the sky
The Space Needle's such a nice guy
But you never know...
Viva Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva viva viva viva viva Sea-Tac
They've got the best computers and coffee and smack

Viva Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac
Viva Seattle Tacoma, viva viva Sea-Tac

Long live everything in Washington State
Including everybody
May they live to a million years
May they reproduce until there's no room to go anywhere
Clustered under the Space Needle
Like walking eggs with arms and legs

Alright, we can probably stop
Has anyone ever written a song more specific to the Emerald City? For God's sake, he even mentions Ballard!

The best tiramisu I've ever eaten

Recipe courtesy of Kibbutz guest Erica Zwick. It's beyond wonderful.

"Happy pills" in the (medical) news

Someone on Facebook posted a Medical News Today article on psychiatric meds. Amazingly, it's the first time I've ever seen the phrase "designer consciousness."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sad news

I heard about Natasha Richardson on NPR when I got home from work. Her filmography was a mixed bag (I remember her best from the Parent Trap remake and Nell, which should tell you something), but she always seemed extremely classy. May she rest in peace.

Reversal psychology

Worth a read: D.T. Max's New Yorker piece on Michael Clayton writer-director Tony Gilroy, whose new comic thriller Duplicity looks not half bad.

As the world stopped turning

You've probably already read all about the P-I, and I'm so behind I didn't even get a copy of the final issue, but just in case, here are some highlights.

Sifting through the P-I's massive photo archive is a tremendous treat. I thought the following picture, of the Space Needle in progress, was particularly wonderful:

All right, Facebook dating ads, you win

In the past, I've mocked Facebook's pathetic attempts to find me a girlfriend based solely on my Facebook doings. But today I was presented with a small ad accompanied by the above picture. (BTW: Is that just Kate Bosworth in glasses?) The headline read: "Like geeky girls?" Oh, Facebook -- if you have to ask, you already know the answer. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You've seen through me, straight through to my most secret soul. I guess I no longer have the right to mock you. You nailed me, Facebook. I only wonder what I did -- what groups I joined, for example -- that resulted in this ad.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Beams of light in the darkness

When I stopped by Sonic Boom in Capitol Hill last week to pick up some empty CD cases for future mixes, I stumbled upon Dark Was The Night, the recently released benefit album from the Red Hot Organization, which has put out a number of compilations over the years to raise money for HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness efforts. The price (between $12 and $13, I think) was extremely low considering the total number of tracks (31!), and though I tend to be at least as wary of benefit albums as the average person, I went for it. After all, the lineup of artists -- Bon Iver, The Books, Yeasayer, The National, Spoon, Grizzly Bear, Beirut, and even quirky Canadian hip-hop artist Buck 65 -- struck me as the kind of zeitgeist-ish assembly you rarely find on mixes like this. Usually, a benefit album's roster is clearly intended to be hip but falls well short of the mark; this one seemed right on the money.

It's no great surprise that the record is a mixed bag; what is surprising is who shines and who falls flat. Spoon's "Well Alright" is the sort of mildly frantic, forward-surging minimalist punky pop they haven't released in years. Their last full-length album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, was at once more experimental, heavily produced, and on target than previous strong but hit-and-miss efforts. The band's Dark track is peppy but forgettable, and its resemblance to their more low-fi earlier work suggests to me that this is more of a second-tier B-side than anything else.

What's more interesting is when an artist uses the freedom of the compilation format to depart from his or her usual style. This is what Sufjan Stevens does on the epic "You Are the Blood," which starts with R2D2-like electronic squawks and drones, then gives way to Stevens' distinctively gentle vocals. The music that surrounds them is considerably more downbeat than his usual neo-Americana orchestrations, though the lyrics evoke Stevens' usual theme of Christian praise:
You are the blood flowing through my fingers/All through the soil and up in those trees/You are electricity and you're light/You are sound itself and you are flight
That the "You" Stevens is referring to is God seems hard to deny; there's even a little blood imagery to invoke the Son as well as the Father. Still, like much of the artist's other work (especially on his 2005 masterpiece, Illinois), this is music that defies easy categorization and has greater potential appeal than a strange, dirge-like worship song normally would.

Some established bands, like the Arcade Fire with "Lenin" and the New Pornographers with "Hey Snow White," contribute light-hearted, unmemorable throwaways that might interest fans but are unlikely to grab newcomers, since they don't demonstrate anything close to the bands' full power. Rising Brooklyn tribal-rock outfit Yeasayer has the right idea with "Tightrope," a tune that feels tossed off in the best possible sense. It seems mostly about the band enjoying itself, and on albums like this, that's often a formula for success. "Service Bell," a brief, delicate duet between Canadian acts Feist and Grizzly Bear, is another winner that easily ranks with either band's best work, and "Brackett, W9" highlights Bon Iver's inspired, low-fi production and ethereal vocals to fine effect.

Dark's covers, on the other hand, are pretty uninspired. Conceptually, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings' neo-soul sensibility is a great match for Shuggie Otis' smartly soulful "Inspiration Information," yet their take is more of a down-the-line single than a home run. My Brightest Diamond's version of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" adds nothing and is completely unnecessary, and even Antony's rendition of a Dylan song, "I Was Young When I Left Home," isn't more than the sum of its parts. (In contrast, Antony's contribution to the I'm Not There soundtrack, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," adjusted the song's tone from world-weary to mournful, thus serving as a true interpretation rather than a straight rendition.)

For me, a compilation track works best if it finds the artist going someplace new without sacrificing album-worthy quality. According to those criteria, Buck 65's "Blood Pt. 2," which samples the aforementioned Stevens track, is Dark's only runaway success. Buck's rhyming tangle of domestic details and drug innuendo ("cotton swabs and bloody lies") meshes beautifully with the horn-heavy production and the channeling of Stevens' haunting chorus. Unlike many of the double album's other tracks, "Blood Pt. 2," at a length of just over three and a half minutes, feels almost too short and definitely leaves you wanting more.

I'm sick

But I hope to be back soon with posts on Dark Was The Night, an HIV/AIDS benefit album that's packed to the gills with indie-rock royalty, and my new obsession, the first season of Heroes. Until then, take good care of yourselves!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Thank heavens

Finally, in these times of untold woe and ruin, some honest-to-God good news. You did the right thing, kids.

Purim = hamantaschen

And Debs has posted a wonderful essay about them to The New York Times' Bitten blog.

The art of autobiographical blogging

I feel a tad bit schooled by Sasha. But when isn't that the case?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Curtis Sittenfeld talks about "American Wife"

I haven't listened to this yet, but I will soon.

R.I.P., Lilli

She belonged to one of my boss's friends, and now she's in prairie dog heaven. I've not often seen anything so adorable, so I had to post the picture.

Best "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" clip ever

Ignore the asinine visual element and focus on the pure genius of the audio:

My sister played this for me while I was visiting her in L.A.

The song that's stuck in my head this week

Damn you, Lily Allen.

In other music news, the new Decemberists single has a wicked sense of humor, albeit one I hesitate to get too excited about in light of where I work:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Your spring reading list

Thanks to Leyna at Jew-ish.com's blog for this epic tip-off.

My band's first album

Per the delightful meme, here's the cover of my fictitious band's debut record:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Softball in the snow

You've got to hand it to Seattle weather -- you can't say it doesn't have a sense of humor. It wasn't enough that recent precipitation rendered the Green Lake softball fields a slippery morass of mud and duck goose poop; it also had to start snowing right in the middle of my first Underdog Sports League team practice. The people on the team seem nice, and frighteningly athletic compared to me. They were making great plays in the infield and outfield, and while I more or less held my own, I may end up being the weakest link.

I might have made a mistake in marking "3" as my level on the sign-up form; Underdog has five levels, of which 5 is the strongest and 1 the least skilled. The clever little tagline that went along with 3 was, as I recall, "I know what I'm doing, but... go easy on me, okay?" I thought that characterized my level of play pretty accurately, but my teammates appear to be the sort of players other teams would beg to go easy on them. That said, it's nice to be part of a team where the women can really hit, and it's also good to know that I'll be forced to hustle a little more than a weaker team would make me do.

Our self-appointed team captain, a tall, brawny fellow in a backwards Texas Longhorns baseball cap, told us he doesn't usually yell at players unless they commit softball's cardinal sin: playing outfield and not backing up the infielders. He emphasized how important it is to back them up. "It can win games," he said. "I shit you not." He also revealed that he dislikes losing, and that he came to practice hung over from the previous night's bachelor party. Anyway, our first game is next Sunday, with another practice preceding it on Saturday at 2 p.m. Here's hoping next weekend delivers less snow and a bare minimum of goose poop.

Gordon Brown visited the White House...

...and all he got was this specially prepared set of 25 American movie classics. While much has been made of this in the media -- Brown gave Obama historically symbolic presents, and Obama gave Brown something he could have bought at Amazon.com -- I know which of the two gift sets I'd prefer.

Friday, March 6, 2009

"American Wife"

I'm nearly done with Curtis Sittenfeld's third novel, a fictionalized account of former First Lady Laura Bush's life. As Kurt Andersen notes in his back-cover blurb, it's a brave conceit, not because the people who inspired the story might cry foul, but because Sittenfeld's first-person narrative makes it hard not to feel sympathy for the former First Couple. (Yes, even George, who comes off as rascally and slackerish but not cruel or stupid.) It's fairly apparent even to someone like me, who has only a passing knowledge of the Bushes' biographies, which parts of Laura's life the author took liberties with, but after reading the Wikipedia entry on Madame Dubya, I was struck by how many things Sittenfeld transferred directly from reality to fiction.

Sure, her Charlie Blackwell and Alice Lindgren meet in Wisconsin, not Texas, and Charlie gets involved in his family's meat (rather than oil) business, but the basic trajectories of both lives are more or less preserved. Laura Welch did kill a high-school classmate in an auto accident (Sittenfeld makes them a quasi-couple, presumably to add pathos), and she was a school librarian and a registered Democrat before she met George. For his part, the president-to-be did own a chunk of a baseball team (albeit the Rangers, not the Brewers), he was elected governor several years after an unsuccessful congressional run, and he really did go from drinking too much and snorting coke to born-again Christianity.

Sittenfeld cleverly divides the novel into four quarters, each marked by Alice's residence at the time. She starts out on humble Amity Lane in small-town Riley, Wisconsin, and ends up at the most famous address in the world: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The book's final quarter is, to me, the least interesting, since there's more summary -- this is what life is like as First Lady (hint: not all it's cracked up to be) -- than dialogue, and Sittenfeld is so good with the dialogue passages that I miss them when they don't come along every few pages. What I like about the book is that the author manages to engage some of the same themes that suffused her wonderful debut, Prep, including the clash of a small-town girl with the values, morals, and affectations of the wealthy East Coast elite.

Sittenfeld complicates this tension by humanizing everyone; the middle-class character, the outsider, has her issues, too, and the wealthy range from jerks to very nice people (as do the residents of Riley, of course). Except for that last quarter, it's a well-paced book, which came as a relief to me when I realized it's a 550-pager. Sittenfeld develops characters with an ease that can almost seem like sleight-of-hand; before you know it, you're emotionally attached to not just the protagonist but quite a few secondary characters as well. Also, the author uses mostly simple language to create a narrative voice that practically shimmers with intelligence.

Again, you may not realize while you're reading how well she chooses words, but that's what makes her choices a success. I've found the book hard to put down, which is a rarity for me when it comes to novels, and Alice Blackwell's voice, sensibility, and view of the world have gotten inside my head, coloring my thoughts on any given day. When I finish the novel, I'll go online and read and listen to the many interviews Sittenfeld has done since it was published. Until then, I want to savor it, because even my least favorite part of American Wife is still closer to wonderful than dull.

Update, 10:41 p.m.: Now that I'm even closer to the book's end, I realize that what I like best about it is similar to what I loved about Prep: The narrator is so consistently insightful that her observations prompt me to think more deeply and meaningfully about my own life and family. That's an impressive achievement in a first-person narrative, IMHO.

He ain't heavy, he's my father

During my visit to L.A. last weekend, I looked at some pictures I'd never seen before -- old photos my sister Lore brought out for us to peruse together. In one of them, my father is surrounded by his three children from his first marriage -- my half-siblings, including Lore -- as well as his first wife, Patricia. What struck me immediately was how large he was. When I was alive, my father was big, but I didn't think much of it until my teenage years, when I went from overweight to anorexic via a self-deprivation plan of my own design.

When I was at my most deluded and paranoid, I looked at people who were overweight and thought: I'd rather die than end up like that. Seeing the old picture of my dad this past weekend really moved me, and helped me realize how far I've come since the last time I visited my sister in California -- 15 years ago, when I was deep in the throes of my eating disorder. In 1994, she weighed me daily during my visit, as my parents and the growing number of specialists following my case insisted she had to. I, of course, hated being weighed and watched and told to eat what was in front of me. These days I still struggle with eating and weight and body image -- during my recent physical exam, I found out I'm back over 190, which is what I weighed when I unsuccessfully gave Weight Watchers a shot in 2007 -- but I've probably never had a healthier, more even-keeled outlook on those interlocking subjects, and that's worth appreciating, or even celebrating.

What struck me about the photo was that my father must have struggled even more than I have with his size, since he clearly passed out of adolescence and into fatherhood at an unhealthy weight. He never did what I did; he never fled the problem of being too heavy with all his might -- with such fervor, in fact, that he overcompensated, went too far, and ended up with a different, no less dangerous problem. Also, all of his children are doing better today than he was in that picture, and that's a nice way of regaining perspective when I give myself flak for overeating or not exercising enough. I've told several people lately that I still can't quite grasp how others, friends and acquaintances of mine, can actually enjoy exercise. For me, the act of exercising is still weighed down, so to speak, with middle-school baggage (being the fat kid, failing to do even one pull-up, all the humiliation that accompanied that kind of failure, etc.).

This year, I hope to develop a better relationship with exercise by doing things I actually enjoy -- softball, classes, bicycling -- rather than forcing myself to pay for yet another gym membership I can't afford and will likely underuse, or never use at all. I guess my heart broke a little for my dad when I saw that picture, but I was also glad that by the time he became my father, he'd lost at least some of the weight he'd carried around as a younger man. And as I try to get a better sense of what he was like at my age, I imagine it's inevitable that I would start to think of him less as my infallible, all-knowing father and more as a human being, flawed and well-intentioned and funny and good. He's been gone for nearly six years, and it saddens me that he'll never see me get married or have children. But if old photos and stories I've never heard can help me get a better sense of him, I'll settle for that.

Shot a man in Reno?

If so, you might find it useful to confess.

Catnip for grammar nerds

I discovered the archives of the NCSU Online Writing Lab and Grammar Hotline in the course of copyediting a document at work, but I quickly fell in love with it on a personal level. Passages like the following are what won my heart:
It is the Grammar Hotline's opinion that lowercasing brussels sprouts is one tiny step toward popularizing them. Furthermore, it is my considered opinion that Brussels sprouts are so vile that they do not deserve to be popular. In a quixotic attempt to keep them off my dinner plate, I am going to recommend consistent uppercasing of the "B" in Brussels sprouts.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Clearly, I need this shirt

A supposedly fun thing

D.T. Max's article in this week's New Yorker explores The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's unfinished third novel. The quietly iconic author of Infinite Jest committed suicide last year; my favorite of his works is the long essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which lays bare the creepy nature of luxury cruises. Wallace's voice was consistently dazzling in its intelligence, and his sense of humor was both pointed and good-natured.

His superficial cleverness tended to give way to a kind of aching sadness, and Max's excellent piece reveals that this melancholy existed both inside him and in his vision of America, and Americans. His dissection of media and marketing, of the tiny tragedies of our consumerist society -- like his examination of the "courtesy smile" that's become a cloying, wholly counterproductive staple of customer service -- was rarely less than brilliant. I found a few of his observations, as noted in the article, particularly compelling:
In a letter to Nadell, he had made a promise: “I will be a fiction writer again or die trying.”
This, it seems to me, is precisely the kind of fervor that aspiring writers want; to those who possess it, however, it can be more affliction than blessing.
Wallace was pushing himself to get beyond the facile skepticism of “Broom.” In 1993, he told Whiskey Island, a literary magazine, “This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up.”
The quote above leads nicely into the next one:
As he told Salon, “I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values."
Indeed. That's more or less what I'm working through these days; no wonder Wallace resonated with Generation Y. And finally, the quote that might hit closest to home for me:
To DeLillo he wrote, “I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do, but it does, and now I’m back here flogging away (in all senses of the word) and feeding my own wastebasket.”
I feel this way about writing journalistic pieces versus writing fiction -- the former isn't that hard for me, whereas I can barely get myself to contemplate the latter. Writing, it seems, was the ultimate "supposedly fun thing" in Wallace's life. Yet unlike the frighteningly prepackaged cruise he describes in the essay, he could never get himself to abandon writing, to never do it again. For that, at least, we can be grateful.

My chemical romance, part three

Some romances are destined to be short-lived. After less than two weeks on Celexa, I've decided to return to Lexapro. I could compensate for the price increase ($13 per month for Celexa, nearly $100 per month for Lexapro) by going to therapy biweekly rather than weekly, and as my money-management advisor, Moorea, wisely noted the other day, mental and physical health are things you can't put a price tag on, because everything else hinges on them. (Similarly, in tonight's Nextbook salon on Jews and the body, we discussed the idea that our corporeal selves are on loan to us from God, so we're obligated to treat them well; I think sticking with the medication that works absolutely qualifies.)

Anyway, I look forward to returning to Lexapro, since even my brief time off it has been marked by trouble concentrating and, amazingly, problems articulating my thoughts -- a situation I rarely find myself in. (Even if my thoughts are ridiculous, I can almost always spit them out coherently.) Here's hoping I don't have too much longer to wait until the contentment I've enjoyed since Thanksgiving comes back to me.

The sincerest form of flattery

Priceless. Thanks to Kelly for the tip-off!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

News feed

Since my last post, a bunch has happened. To wit:
  • My boss pointed out author-provocateur (provocateuse?) Norah Vincent's newest outrageous, ethically questionable piece of muckraking;
  • my former NWsource.com colleague Jon Palmer drew my attention to the Times' new blog, Coffee City;
  • Facebook revealed plans for another big facelift;
  • and former Seattle Weekly managing editor Chuck Taylor -- aka my former boss -- unveiled his new Seattle Post-Post-Intelligencer wiki, just one of many online responses to the probably imminent demise of the Seattle P-I. Chuck has been interested in the topic of technology and journalism for a long time, so it's good to see him stay ahead of the curve.
In more personal news, I:
  • visited my half-sister Lore in Los Angeles and took a lot of pictures (the image above is of a public high school, believe it or not);
  • watched The Class, the Heroes pilot, and Atonement, the last of which was better than I thought it would be (The Class and Heroes were, respectively, quite good and just fine);
  • saw the Irish band Lunasa perform on a wonderfully warm night;
  • read quite a bit of Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, which I'm really enjoying;
  • began to realize that my 20 daily milligrams of Celexa aren't, thus far, measuring up to my previous prescription, 10 milligrams of Lexapro;
  • visited L.A.'s Central Library;
  • consumed various authentic Mexican delicacies, including candied lime skin stuffed with sugared coconut and watermelon, cantaloupe, and mango cut in pieces, tossed in a plastic bag, and seasoned with chili powder, salt, and lime juice;
  • and got my beloved car, Gracie, back from the mechanic. She's doing fine.
It's been a busy time, and I'm working full days (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) until St. Patrick's Day. I'm staying in Seattle this weekend rather than going to Vancouver, as I'd planned to do, because I'm in stop-the-world-I-wanna-get-off mode, and I'd like a few work-free days to cool back down.