Friday, July 4, 2008

Moda, M-O-D-A, Moda!

What better way to re-inaugurate my blog than with a revue of the newest furry addition:

What the heck does that name mean, you ask?  Your guess is as good as mine.  When she showed up at the Charlottesville SPCA two years ago (after being rescued from a shed in a trailer park) someone gave her that name, and it's stuck!  If you have suggestions, I'm all ears.
She does lots of this.
And this.

And you should probably watch this for your own good:

What is that inhuman speech issuing from behind the camera, you ask?  Your guess is as good as mine.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Random Acts of Literature

Nearing the completion of my Master's Thesis, I've begun reading whatever I please - which, luckily for me, happens to coincide with the depths of American Literature.  I randomly picked up Two Years Before the Mast which is the 1840 account of a Harvard/Cambridge student who went aboard a ship in order to give his failing eyes a break.

Exactly.  Great plan, dude!

The book, which is based on the journal he kept during the two year voyage around Cape Horn and back, professes to give an accurate picture of the life of a common sailor (rather than the officers).  And so far as I can tell, it does so: life as a common sailor is really boring, and really repetitive, and really sucks.  

But the author slips in a few passages that sneak up on you, and here's one of them:

"The calm of the morning reminds me of a scene which I forgot to describe at the time of its occurrence, but which I remember from its being the first time that I had heard the near breathing of whales . . . We had the watch from twelve to four, and coming upon deck, found the little brig lying perfectly still, surrounded by a thick fog, and the sea as smooth as though oil had been poured upon it; yet now and then a long, low swell rolling under its surface, slightly lifting the vessel, but without breaking the glassy smoothness of the water.  We were surrounded far and near by shoals of sluggish whales and grampuses, which the fog prevented our seeing, rising slowly to the surface, or perhaps lying out at length, heaving out those peculiar lazy, deep, and long-drawn breathings which give such an impression of supineness and strength.  Some of the watch were asleep, and the others were perfectly still, so that there was nothing to break the illusion, and I stood leaning over the bulwarks, listening to the slow breathings of the mighty creatures - now one breaking the water just alongside, whose black body I almost fancied that I could see through the fog; and again another, which I could just hear in the distance - until the low and regular swell seemed like the heaving of the ocean's mighty bosom to the sound of its heavy and long-drawn respirations."

I wonder if the power of this passage doesn't lie in the fact that it was not part of the author's journal.  It is not an account of an event, but the account of the memory of an event, and it seems that in these moments the narrative really inspires.  While the minutiae of roping and swabbing is interesting from a historical perspective, these are the moments when the account escapes into literature.

Critics have recently contested that work isn't really represented in 19th Century American Literature.  Well, it certainly is here, and if 19th Century work seems interesting to you then you should maybe check this book out, and you should definitely look into Rebecca Harding Davis's unbelievable novella: Life in the Iron Mills.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Oh, Easter.  You again.
Upon finding myself alone upon an Easter morning, I ask myself: what am I going to eat, and will I need to leave my apartment to eat it?  Hopefully not.  Hopefully I can find some place that is willing to deliver me a good meal so that I can spend the entire day in leggings and my ridiculously awesome slippers:

I need a quiet afternoon with my pal Harriet Beecher Stowe, so that I can mentally organize all the ways I plan to explain that she was a classist wench who didn't understand the import of her subject matter.  How's that for academic objectivity?  Compromised much?

Meanwhile, Pippin the Hamster is putting on a ridiculous show of cuteness:

See his little pink nose and balled up feet.  Aw.

And the kids up and down my street are throwing raucous parties, which involve a little too much screaming bloody murder, if you ask me.  One of these times that wolf's really gonna be there!  
Youth.  God love 'em.

And over the pleasant picture there broods a shadow: the shadow of Philadelphia.  Because in the past week everything has changed.  While I was 100% excited about teaching community college (and stand by my belief that it's a sweet gig), now I'm accepted to a PhD program at Temple University.  Great news, right?  Of course!  Philadelphia's a great place for a student of early American literature, and there are a number of good people at Temple ...

only the school is located in Northern Philadelphia, which is consistently described as "a war zone."  And Philadelphia as a whole has a terribly high crime rate.  So my excitement is slightly tempered by my fear of .. you know .. crimes against my person.  

So for that reason, and the ever present monetary monster, for at least the first year I'll be 'burbin it up, which won't be so bad.  I'll probably have a 30-60 minute train ride, but hey, a confined space where my best option is to read my books is probably a good thing.

And of course, now that I'll be in a place with actual things to do, maybe someone will come visit me!  I'm lookin' at you.  Yeah.  You.

I've been neglecting my blog, but no more!

On the docket:
Scene this Weekend: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

And a few new ideas:
Books You've Never Heard of, But Should Really Read: Weiland by Charles Brockden Brown
Books You've Heard of and Why You Should Actually Read Them: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Simplifying the Argument: a new column that takes the fluff swirling around a current topic and boils it down to two or three sentences.

Cheers, ya'll!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Scene This Weekend: Vantage Point

So, M. and I are avid movie goers.  We like getting out of the house and being surrounded by unacademic Charlottesvillians (though this entire city seems to have missed the memo on how not to be annoying in a movie theater).  We like being part of a cultural moment.  Our favorite experiences have been seeing 300 and The Bourne Supremacy - neither of which are the best movies we've seen in the past two years, but both of which were seen in packed theaters on opening night, with a healthy dose of high schoolers all around who weren't afraid to voice their excitement.  Like opening night of Peter Pan, the right audience can make all the difference.

So I've decided to share my opinions (of which there are many) on the movies we see, beginning this week with Vantage Point, that movie they've been previewing for about a year now.

My Grade: C+

Here's why:

If you've carefully watched the trailer and are a reasonably intelligent person, then you do in fact know the plot of the entire movie.  Let's see, hmm...The trailer shows, in addition to numerous other things, a body double for the President is shot, the real President is in a hotel room, we see a man pass off a hotel keycard, some schmuck hams up some line about Americans arrogantly thinking they're always a step ahead, Dennis Quaid (my man) yells "there's something else going on here" ... what do you think happens?  Well you're exactly right, and really, there aren't too many surprises waiting for you.  What's the deal with these movie trailers that give away the whole thing?  I cannot possibly fathom the rationale behind this, other than they must suppose that people aren't smart enough to connect A to B to C.  Except that, you see, it's only hard to get from A to C when you aren't given B.  When all the elements are just handed to you, it's no feat of intellectualism - it's just watching.

But beyond this unforgivable extra-textual element, the movie opens with Sigourney Weaver giving a terrible performance as a News Director in a trailer outside the President's speech.  Her slow, calm, heavily enunciated tone did not at all resemble any of the behind the scenes footage of news directors that I've ever seen, and didn't account for this discrepancy with any additional character depth.  This is all combined with (or is perhaps a symptom of) some terribly written pat dialogue.  And the lines don't get much better as the movie goes on.  "I'm so tired of this double life"?  Really?  Not even subtitles can forgive that crap.  

Without going into too much of the plot, I can tell you that it involves a lot of shallow, poorly conceived politics that are insulting to the Secret Service, the Spanish, Americans and the audience, and that the entire thing hinges upon the only kid in history without a flight instinct.  I hate unrealistic plot devices and shallow politics.  They're the m.o. of lazy, thoughtless writers/directors/producers and should not be tolerated by the American people!  Stand up for yourselves, Americans!  You deserve better than movies that seem like they're written by a 16 year old boy on a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

M. and I counted at least four plot threads that clearly ended up on the cutting room floor, but were not sufficiently excised from the remaining reels.  Luis? Camera Six go West?  Black SS agent? Felipe?  Each evidence that the movie simply was not tight enough, and it certainly wasn't saved by an intriguing and innovative narrative device.  It's all been done before, and better, and as is customary with "vantage point" style movies, far too many minutes are spent watching the same footage over and over again.

When action movies are done right, they're incredible.  The Bourne trilogy, for example, is almost poetry in its style, pacing, internal allusions and performances.  Honestly, if you haven't seen all three, save your $9.00 on Vantage Point and spend a Sunday with 6 hours of Matt Damon and Joan Allen.  You won't regret it.

Cheers, ya'll.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Irrepressible Cuteness

In light of being woken up by a roommate's medical emergency (I don't recommend it - good news, he's ok!), and coming home to find three more very thin envelopes, I divert to the only logical thing - 

A photographic revue of Pippin the Hamster* in a Pepsi box:

*Pippin is available for catalog and TV appearances at a rate exponentially related to his level of adorable on that particular day.


Friday, February 29, 2008

A Lost Odyssey: Dedicated to the Memory of Poor Furry Eloise

So, if you don't watch Lost yet, you don't know what you're missing. For the past three seasons there have been plenty of semi-legitimate complaints that the writers were making it up as they went along, piling mystery after mystery on top of one another because they didn't have answers to any of it, and generally screwing around with the viewership.

I've said all along that I had faith in the show, and preferred to think of it like a contemporary novel; it's often confusing along the way, but the whole thing is there, waiting to be revealed. And now that there is a definite end-date for the program, I believe the show has fallen right into my little metaphor. There are now a finite number of pages which, this season, the writers/producers have been turning to tremendous effect, giving answers with the new mysteries. Here are just a few compelling questions that have been raised:

If you don't watch the show skip the part below, don't ruin the surprises for yourself:

What's Kate doing with Claire's baby? Is Aaron the fifth member of the Oceanic Six? Why would Jack bother to say that 8 people survived the crash if only six of them made it off the island? My Matthew (as opposed to Matthew Fox) thinks they must have brought two bodies home with them, and this seems like a sound conclusion.

And don't get me started on all this Slaughterhouse V "unstuck" in time business - I think it's awesome, and I love that this show acknowledges that the future cannot be changed. Too many shows have people time traveling without fully addressing the way that their past actions would then affect the moment they first learned to time travel. I'm only surprised that there wasn't a nod to "he has always pushed the button ... he will always push the button..."

And last night's episode was blissfully full of my favorite Lost theme - The Odyssey. I love me some Desmond David Hume and Penelope Widmore, and in my opinion their closing conversation last night was a direct nod to the Blind Bard himself. Here it is from

Desmond: I don't know where I am, but..

Penny: I will find you, Des

D: I promise...

P: I promise...

D: ...I'll come back to you

P: ...I won't give up

D: I promise
P: I promise

Together: I love you.

Tug, tug go the heartstrings and "holy crap!" go the mythophiles! Oh Desmond, you wandering, clever, complicated, loathe to commit Mariner, you! And you, Penelope, weaving and unweaving the threads of your life until finally you launch your little Telemachian resources to find the man who promised to return - all the while combating a pack of Pretenders. Will there be a rash of killings upon the return to Ithaca? Will there be a long ride into the sunset, or perhaps a slow, gnawing angst and concluding sorrow somehow involving a fruit tree (or ... something like that - time to dig out those Myth 101 notes again, apparently)?

What does Mr. Widmore want with The Island, anyway, and can we now assume that he is in charge of the Freighter and has ordered the crew not to take Penelope's calls? Why is he so anti-Desmond, really? There are some theories floating around that Torvald Hanso's journal contains notes specifically for Widmore - that perhaps they, too, are unstuck in time - so perhaps Desmond has even greater cosmic significance than we realize, and perhaps that plays right into the Odysseyan theme. Either way, he could have at least turned off the freakin' water.

All in all I commend the writers/producers/whoever is responsible for tapping into one of the most evocative and therefore enduring myths of all time. It's wonderful, and I'm loving every minute of it!

I can't wait to read J Wood's blog on to see what other literary/philosophical/mythological references were included in this latest episode. I highly recommend his blog, and not just because he's also a grad student at UVA (though it does help).

Really, it's a terrific show, flaws and all, and I thrill at being involved in the cultural moment every Thursday.

Look out soon for an exotic blog from the wilds of West Virginia, my thoughts on why many seemingly innocuous commercials are in fact ruining the world, and a raging debate between myself and myself: Library Science, or High School?

Cheers, ya'll.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Light in August?

So, amid the emotional swirl of vast uncertainty - namely, will I get accepted to a PhD program? (looking increasingly unlikely, but with 10 schools left to report) - I thought it was a good time to take a break from worrying about it, and to take a break from transcribing interviews for my totally legitimate on-campus job, to write down a few things that have brought me joy in the past couple of weeks:

1. John Oliver is more clever than you.
Confirmed. John Oliver, of The Daily Show, came to UVA to give a stand up performance that probably won't be surpassed any time soon.

He opened with an explanation of how we all had the opportunity to speak with his brilliant British accent, but we had to go and dump all that tea in Boston Harbor ("at least you could have pre-boiled the ocean, maybe added a dash of milk - I don't pretend to know how you take it!"), continued through the story of how he realized at 11 he would never be a professional athlete ("I wanted to be a professional athlete - [audience pause] - yes, it's true, f*ck you, Virginia!") to his equation "If Nigeria has a coconut, and the United States wants that coconut, what does Nigeria have?" the answer somehow ending up with "no coconuts and a minus mango"

All my lame attempts at transcription are hopeless, of course, but honestly, it was the funniest 45 minutes I've seen in a long time. One hundred percent clever, intellectual, contemporary, smart-kid humor. I loved it.

2. Seeing There Will Be Blood
It's like everything I love wrapped into a big celluloid package:

capitalism and technology impinging upon settler culture (not much of a garden, but lots of machine)
Fascinatingly bizarre religion-in-isolation
An overabundance of masculinity
Turn of the 20th Century culture
Father/son intrigue
and American Mobility

Plus it was just pretty!

3. A new job fact checking things about stage productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin - more money = good.

And here's one that was so annoying it was extremely pleasurable to rail against it:

4. This article ("Ten Guys Women Should Run From") on (technically, particularly the section - "The Virtual Lover":

WTF? Seriously? Someone was paid to write this exercise in being asinine? Aren't Oprah and her ilk tired of the whole "people can be conveniently categorized and understood as such" schtick? Not to mention that, according to this article, women should run from virtually every man who isn't already thirty-five and pulling in over a hundred grand a year. Maybe this is a target audience issue - does any woman under the age of thirty really consider Oprah inoffensive and relevant, and if so, can you please come to Charlottesville? I'd like to have a word with you.
But the most egregious offense of this article is the section "The Virtual Lover" which tells women that they should run from a man who will not have sex with them in the first month or two of a relationship, saying:

"A surprising number of great romancers out there never get around to having sex. To the date-weary woman, this can seem like not the worst combination, but beware. Eventually he will blame his problems on the smell of your breath or the size of your thighs."

So, the fact that a man does not want to have sex necessarily makes him a jerk who's really hoping that if he gives you enough time you'll correct your physical imperfections. Because he's crazy? Because he's blaming you for his impotence? What the hell is this article talking about, and could it be anymore committed to gender stereotypes? Apparently, it's impossible that a man might refrain from having sex with a woman for ethical/moral/personal/any other totally legitimate reasons. Because men are sex maniacs, didn't you know? Because men are inextricably bound by the (re)actions of their penis.
All I'm saying is that if this shit were written about women - if there were an article advising men to dump women who held off having sex for six dates - the female community would be up in arms, and that, my friends, is the litmus test for gender bias. If the stick can't swing both ways, it shouldn't be swung at all.

And with that, I have to return to my totally legitimate job and my totally legitimate transcribing.

Tomorrow is another day ... of the same thing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Colbert and a Hamster

So I'm sure there have been lots of comments on the internets about Stephen Colbert's interview last night (2/11) with Dr. Zimbardo from Stanford, whose new book The Lucifer Effect is an interesting study of how good people in certain situations can abuse their authority, or do things we might classify as "evil."  The title of his book is a little confusing - based on his interview with Colbert, it seems that he's not suggesting that people turn Satanic, but that Lucifer, by tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, demonstrated that man was inherently susceptible to bad influences.
Or something like that.  It's hard to say because I haven't read the book, and because Zimbardo made a classic academic mistake and left off his primary material to debate something on which he could only demonstrate a tertiary knowledge.  For those who didn't see it, here's a transcript of what I think is the most interesting part of the interview, from

Zimbardo: But why does [Lucifer] disobey? Because God says, I have created this perfect creature, Adam, and everybody has to obey him. And Lucifer says, wait a minute, he’s a mortal, mortals are corruptible. We’re angels; I refuse. And that’s disobedience to authority. So the reason Lucifer — as the Devil — seduced Adam, is to say, God, I’m right, and you’re wrong. This guy is corruptible; he’s not somebody we should respect. He is just an ordinary mortal.

Stephen: But in that case, Lucifer was right.

Zimbardo: Lucifer was right, and God was wrong.

Stephen: [laughing, backing away] Okay, okay!

Zimbardo: If God was into reconciliation, He would say, I made a mistake, okay? God created Hell. Paradoxically, it was *God* who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels. And had He not created Hell, then evil would not exist, so you would not –

Stephen: No, evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will. Satan used his free will, and abused it by not obeying authority. Hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love. Which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love. You send yourself to Hell, God does not send you there.

Zimbardo: Obviously, you learned well in Sunday School.

Stephen: I teach Sunday School, motherf*#er!

Despite the hilarity of the last line, which made me cry, just a little bit, I was very pleased to see Colbert put this guy in his place.  And not because I, too, am a Catholic, but because Zimbardo was just plain wrong, and when someone is spitting out wrongness, they should be corrected.

My experience has been that, especially in the academy, individuals who would otherwise speak very cautiously and make sure that they have their facts straight, feel no compunction about speaking about religion in an obviously uninformed manner.  In this case, Zimbardo has read way too much Milton and Christian Mythology, and not enough doctrine.  Throughout the interview, he discusses the interactions between God and Lucifer as if they are actually a part of the religious canon, rather than elements of myth and literature.

So my pride in Colbert is not that he stood up for Catholicism, or religion, but that he stood up for academic principles even when they collided with religion.  Too often, I myself have felt as if I should hold back from speaking about religion in an academic context because my classmates, peers, professors, whomever, would jump to the conclusion that I am delivering some kind of sermon.  Despite the fact that religion has been an organizing force in people's lives as real as feminism or socialism, many in the academy continue to view it as a Do Not Enter Zone - as if religion can't be discussed in a dispassionate, scholarly way just like anything else.

There have been lots of exceptions in my experience, and I hope that there continue to be more.  But the fact is that religion is not some nebulous cloud that anyone may speak about at any time without being either right or wrong.  It seems to me very similar to literary criticism - there are many, many things you can say about Uncle Tom's Cabin, but there are not infinite things you can say about it - there is a point where things become just plain inaccurate, and religion is the same way.  In the case above, Colbert called Dr. Zimbardo on his poor understanding of Christian doctrine, and I'm glad he did.

And, to close this perhaps over-serious post, I present you with a picture of my hamster:

Here in his "spaceship" demonstrating his commitment to scraping through his plastic cage.  One day, li'l guy ... one day.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Eschewing Sophistry and Fulfilling My Mission?

So is it terrifying, or transcendental that the 19th Century writers I spend most of my time with have started to speak to me?  Does Lydia Maria Child really have a voice that echoes profoundly across the centuries, or have my ears changed?  I take the title of both this post and my entire blog from the 1830's radical herself.  In an editorial to all her fellow abolitionists, Child writes:

Honestly follow your own convictions, and thus fulfil your mission, be it centripetal or centrifugal; but for your own soul's sake, see that you do it honestly.  Eschew all sophistry, all evasion, all false pretences.  If the very devil seem to you better than he is represented, say it of him, but call him by his name.

Maybe the devil doesn't have red horns and a pitchfork - but he's still the freakin' devil.  And, in Child's context, maybe slavery didn't always appear as horrible as expected - but it was still slavery, for cryin' out loud.

And so I commence my very own campaign to call things by their names.  I'm not sure that I have a mission in life, and I'm not sure that all sophistry will be eschewed, but here's hoping!

Perhaps it's just that I'm in graduate school and hoping to make a living out of having an opinion and coercing others into believing it, maybe it's because I've recently realized that I'm a bona fide adult, or maybe it's that I'm living on the edges of the country in a city full of strangeness, but I seem to have an awful lot of opinions lately... ok, so I've always had a lot of opinions, but these are different - they're not stupid.  Entirely.

So prepare thyselves, gentle readers, for a cavalcade of  commentary, a slough of sarcasm, and not a little antiquated allusions, vocabulary, phrases and grammar, beginning with my very own screen name.  If you like novels and you haven't read all 1500 pages of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa - boy are you missing out.  In addition to setting all kinds of generic conventions and giving us the literary Libertine at his finest, Clarissa grants the world the astonishing Anna Howe.  Whether she's cursing mankind, toying with her husband-to-be by telling him she hates him, or ordering people to be dragged through fish ponds, Anna Howe is a woman to be reckoned with.  So, naturally, I admire her.  Clearly.

I begin:  The girl at Revolutionary Soup may have been flustered by my question, but letting the soup I'd just paid six bucks for sit there for over ten minutes, then telling me to "microwave it" when I asked if it would still be hot was still really stupid.  And kind of bitchy.  And perfectly Charlottesville.

Cheers, Ya'll.