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.