Thursday, July 30, 2009

Google says ...

Yet again, the Google Ads associated with my blog deserve mention. Check out this evening's:

Um ... I'm not even sure what to say about this one! So what about my recent posts has triggered the "desperate older lady" and "lonely couch-dweller" facets of the algorithm? Peculiar, to say the least!

The Pit

I tried. I really, earnestly tried to finish Frank Norris's The Pit (1903). But I just couldn't do it. Norris is a fascinating author (just look at that character, would ya?) but I found both The Pit and McTeague rather tough to get through, which is a shame because there are so many reasons why I should have loved reading them both.

The Pit takes place in Chicago, where I have numerous friends living. It investigates the wheat trading floor (aka the pit) at the Chicago board of trade, and forces the reader to examine how the acts of individual traders can have a global impact. So-and-so corners the market and runs up the price of wheat - great for them, good for farmers, awfully bad for the Europeans hoping to turn that wheat into bread.

The book is most fascinating and pertinent for our time on this point. If there was ever a time to be reminded that numbers on the stock market are connected to actual products/services/people, it surely is now. The Pit of course deals with a tangible commodity: wheat, as opposed to dividends and mortgage-backed securities, or whatever the hell we've all been talking about for the past few months, which makes its story more simply told. Crops are changeable, and the people with the most information about those crops are able to use those changes to their advantage, and rake in huge profits while starving half the world.

This aspect of the novel is also intriguing because it reminds us that there was a time when America fed huge parts of the world, when America really was a giant breadbasket, and when American farmers were valued on a global scale. Don't get me started on how drastically things have changed. It makes me feel too sad, too helpless, too small.

I love its turn of the century setting, and I'm intrigued by the main character, Laura, and her inscrutable desires. And yet ...

I just couldn't finish it. Try as I might to pick up the lovely Penguin edition with its delicious photographic cover, I found myself reaching for Gaskell's Wives and Daughters instead, every time. Norris's Saturday Evening Post style has never spoken to me in the way that Dreiser, or Hawthorne, or Sedgwick have. I'm sure that I'll have Norris on my lists for my doctoral exams, and at that time I'm sure I'll slog back through one of the novels I've already broached, but until then I must leave you with this rather charming description of Chicago and invite you to compare it to today:

Chicago, the great grey city, interested her at every instant and under every condition. As yet she was not sure that she liked it; she could not forgive it dirty streets, the unspeakable squalor of some of its poorer neighbourhoods, that sometimes developed, like cancerous growths, in the very heart of fine residence districts . . . Suddenly the meaning and significance of it all dawned upon Laura. The Great Grey City, brooking no rival, imposed its dominion upon a reach of country larger than many a kingdom of the Old world. For thousands of miles beyond its confines was its influence felt . . . It was Empire, the resistless subjugation of all this central world of lakes and the prairies. Here, mid most in the land, beat the Heart of the Nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, infinite, inexhaustible vitality. Here, of all her cities, throbbed the true life - the true power and spirit of America; gigantic, crude with the crudity of youth, disdaining rivalry; sane and healthy and vigorous; brutal in its ambition, arrogant in the new-found knowledge of its giant strength, prodigal of its wealth, infinite in its desires.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Preparing to Prepare

It suddenly occurred to me, today, that I have only two days left at my current job - what may very well be my last office-oriented, 9-5 job ever.

Here's hoping, right? Graduate school is such a crap shoot, these days, but having made the decision to return, all I can do is remain positive, right? Well, since I've decided it's right, we're just going to go with it.

What will I do with my days almost entirely of my own design? Will I be able to get out of bed at 9:00 AM if I don't have to be at class until 1:00 PM? Will I actually be more willing to keep my house clean once I have a dishwasher and my very own, conveniently placed washer and dryer? Will I starve on my pathetic stipend? Will I make time to read Salon and Slate so that I can continue to feel informed and engaged in the life of my culture (the culture which, incidentally, I am purporting to be a scholar of?) Will I (pretty please?) have more time and dedication to keeping in touch with my friends on a two-way basis and convince them that I have adopted the habit of returning phone calls?

And oh, yeah, will I convince anyone at all that I'm worth the time and money they're investing in me?

I propose the next week as a test: I will not be working, but have plenty to do. Can I write that piece I've been contemplating? Can I get through my class materials? Can I make a dent in the list of articles and books I should read?

We shall see.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

You Too Can Be Proud of Yourself For Not Discriminating Against the Disabled

So, if you've been to a movie theater lately, you've probably seen this spot from the Foundation for a Better Life. If you're unable to follow the link, here's the gist:

It's homecoming, a beautiful girl gets up on stage and announces two attendants, she pauses ... announces the winner with a surprised, but genuinely excited smile. The camera moves behind some heads ... they pan onto a pair of orthopedic shoes, and pan up to reveal: the young woman with Down's Syndrome who's just been named Homecoming Queen. "True Beauty: Pass it On" the narrator croons.

The ad informs you that this is a "True Story" and the website has the facts to back it up, and somehow that convinced them that this manipulative schtick wasn't offensive (it's true, right!?) Well yes, that one lovely young woman with Down's Syndrome was voted Homecoming Queen by her class is wonderful for that particular young woman.

But whose "true beauty" is the ad referring to? The woman with Down's Syndrome is necessarily more "truly beautiful" because of her disability? Or are the physically beautiful girls who aren't disabled "truly beautiful" because they've elected her?

Don't get me wrong - I don't believe the ad is mean spirited, or entirely stupid. But I do think it exemplifies the practice of assuming that all disabled people are of a type, thereby denying them full personhood. "People with Down's Syndrome are all beautiful on the inside" denies that people with Down's Syndrome are as uniquely complex as all the "normal" people out there.

The Charlottesville reactions to this spot are always a priceless groan. If only they could get a look at the absurdly patronizing Reader's Digest style essay accompanying the video on the Foundation's website.


Monday, July 6, 2009

The E! Channel Investigates A Common Place

First: "E News" interrupted "Chelsea Lately" with the "Breaking News" that Michael Jackson's funeral may or may not have begun. Like it was a tornado warning. Seriously.

Second: The "E News" lead story that followed "Chelsea Lately" was "what made Debbie Rowe lose it on the paparazzi?" Well, as you can see from the video here, it's pretty damned obvious: the photographers are shoving her, and she's telling them not to "f**king touch" her.

Hm, what could it be that's upsetting her and making her "lose it?" Maybe that random predatory strangers are f**king touching her? The comments on this YouTube video are typical. She's a dangerous, crazy bitch. Well, then, count me among the Crazy Bitch crew. And throw in most of my friends, too, I think.

There is an unwritten rule for stranger encounters: Touching explicitly prohibited. When a woman says "don't touch me" she means it.
A creepy guy asking creepy questions, or following you, or continually attempting to make himself the focus of your attention is one thing - it can be unsettling, unnerving, and irritating.

But when said person touches you? Sound the alarms. I've said "don't touch me" with a steely chill I could hardly believe more times than I can count, and I'm not exactly hitting up the clubs every weekend.

We teach pre-schoolers that unwanted touching crosses the line. So why should we give the gutter press greater interpersonal freedoms with our fellow American Citizens than we give any other random person on the street? Because after all, that's all these jackasses are - random persons on the street taking unauthorized photos of a complete stranger. Why do we let them stop traffic, trespass, stalk? And why do we patronize media outlets that utilize these unauthorized photos? The impediments to total consumer awareness are so frustrating, but the blind acceptance of this ridiculous photographic phenomenon is depressing.

PS: No, I do not know the individual in the above photo. By googling "creepy guy" this gentleman was lucky enough to pop up in the first ten. He is apparently the lead singer of the band These Arms are Snakes from Seattle. The caption for the photo says "looks like a creepy guy, right?" I can't say I disagree.

Le Tour! Le Tour!

The Tour de France began again on the Fourth of July, and Lance Armstrong is back in the mix (in case you hadn't heard).

So, if you get sick of the three-ring circus of speculation surrounding Sarah Palin, you should check it out on Versus. They play the live broadcast from 8:30 AM Eastern and then replay it in condensed form at 2:00, 5:00 and extended at 8:00.
Why do I love le Tour? Is it the snappy British commentators?
Is it the fantastic camera work that makes you feel like you've visited France and several surrounding countries?
The excitement of competition?
The fact that, now after several years of watching, I feel like I know what I'm talking about, recognize the competitors, know a bit of their history, and am able to understand the significant ins and outs of the competition as it's happening?
Why, yes.

But the whole thing is just way more fun when you have someone to root for. For years my mother and I rooted for Lance Armstrong. Every year we told ourselves that it didn't matter how far back he was in the flat stages - once he got into the mountains he would climb to the top, leave the rest of them in the dust. But no matter how sternly we told ourselves that, we were always on the edge of our seats until he had earned a substantial lead.

And even though it's pretty easy to see that the guy's a bit of a jerk, at least he's a jerk who can put his money where his mouth is. Commentator Bob Roll crowed this year that he was so happy Lance was back to give some personality back to this thing. He's exciting, he's wily, and he's really damned good at this.

It was hard to be a fan in the past few years. Floyd Landis was more than exciting, with breakaway after breakaway taking him into the yellow jersey. My whole family got into the excitement and then -- he's disqualified for doping. And then over the next few years everyone and their mother is disqualified for doping. Distressing, to say the least.

But now, after a few tours in which only a few big names remained, le Tour is back! It feels alive again, it feels exciting again. I'm back to explaining to friends and co-workers why it matters that so-and-so didn't have his team with him, what they're doing pulling little cans of coke from the back of their jerseys, why the peloton all gets the same time, why breakaways hardly ever work, but are worth the shot, and (most often) how there can be a team sport with an individual winner.

It's fun, it's beautiful, it's fascinating, it's worth a look!