Tuesday, December 30, 2008

She's Got Taste

When I bite into a cherry cordial I have to make sure everything gets halved. I hate to have the whole cherry get sucked out in the first bite, leaving a drippy milk chocolate shell with no prize inside. I hate milk chocolate. I watch the severed cherry half perched in its liquid nest expanding back to a candy red circle within a circle, having been momentarily squashed by the work of my careful incisors. Then I drink the juice out, and chomp the rest of the treat.

I hate commercials that sell milk chocolate to women. It's not good for us. And it's not even really chocolate. It's milk solids and butter with some brown on it. But they paint a picture of us all coming home from work and diving into a sea of sickening light brown that washes our cares away, or a velvety mud-colored blanket that ribbons around us, satsifying an itch for bliss that no scented candle or romance novel can deliver.

Chocolate -- real chocolate -- doesn't advertise. I hunt it down in the health food store's baking aisle, or in the pretend "natural" section at the supermarket. My chocolate, when not made palatable by maraschinos, must be espresso colored and preferably dotted with savory treats like pistachios or raspberries.

I have the TV on for noise. A male announcer just referred to a beautifully thin black woman's "wavering willpower." She turned down cheddar chips and chewed a one calorie stick of gum instead. She did what she was supposed to do, I guess.

After the cherry I ate an orange. A real orange, with a peel and everything. I pulled the most spotless fruit I could find out of a box labeled "Bonnie - Navels." My Aunt Bonnie and everyone in my family gets loads of navels for Christmas. We would go to the mantel to find our stockings weighed down with suspicious swollen toes. A friend of mine once compared an old lady's rack she saw by accident to "oranges in socks." I just pictured my sister and me staring up at the oranges in socks on Christmas morning, and tucked it away as one of my favorite disturbing associations.

Navels don't skin easy. I got impatient picking off all the white orange crusts and removing sour strings and seams. I arranged the sections in a white finger bowl ringed in stylized flowers of a distinctly nineteen-seventies mustard color. I plucked out a section that was starting to drip out its juice and stuck it between my upper teeth and gums. It was cold. While I chewed it around I piled the rest of the oranges in a blue bowl and situated it on the round kitchen table, slightly off-center. The navel section was refusing to go down. I stared at the bowl of oranges and the view made the tough, stringy citrus cellulose taste better.

I thought I might try that sort of trick with all foods from now on. I wondered if it would work with magazine pictures. I could eat a flavorless soy nugget and stare at a BHG recipe card showing a crusty-skinned, seasoning-dotted roast chicken, or eat the last questionable dollops of greek yogurt, separating at the bottom of the container, while gazing at dairy ads showing waves of ice-cold cream sloshing from white ceramic pitchers. All my food experiences would be enhanced to approach the expectations aroused by the food-photography spectacularity.

I did not bathe today. I wore two bathrobes, one on top of the other. I shredded bank papers for three hours. I finished reading a novel. I shredded some poems. And these tasteful moments with food-stuffs kept me alive.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Burpy

Explaining how to pour. (Beer is good in warm places too.)

When you live in a cold place you must drink beer to survive. The southerners in this country, they drink bourbon whiskey. The southerners in Europe, they drink lots of wine. We northerners, all over the globe, need our beer.

My toes are freezing, and I am imbibing a dark chocolatey brew called Edmund Fitzgerald. You all know the reference? It's a ship that sank in Lake Eerie in 1975. Old Gordon Lightfoot sang about it the next year. The bottle even has a sense of humor: "...our Edmund Fitzgerald will taste smoky, robust, dark and bittersweet. Thanks to our environmental efforts, if you take a swig of Lake Eerie it won't taste smoky, robust, dark and bittersweet." I like raillery in a beer. Plus it's got that Guinnessy flavor, without the dogfood aftertaste.

Another beer I can't live without is your over-hopped IPA. That's India Pale Ale for you oenologists who have neglected your beer studies. And it's not Indian at all. It was originally brewed with extra hops so it would last the journey to India from Great Britain, back in the good old days of British Imperialism.

Hops are a preservative as well as a steroid. Drink an IPA if you want to have a long life and fight off inflammation. Dogfish Head Brewery has a 60 minute and a 90 minute IPA that will make you cough and burp a lot.

Speaking of Dogfish Head, they make an ancient brew called Midas Touch. It is based on a recipe that was supposedly derived from examining the contents of beer barrels that were dredged up with a shipwreck. It is quite heavenly. I think the "ancient brews resurrected" category of beers is my absolute favorite.

Another good one is 1554, which is New Holland's Belgian black ale based on a recipe found in someone's 16th century notebook. A flood destroyed the orginal research, so they had to travel to Belgium and find the recipe again by sifting through old manuscripts! I love tasting something that possibly tastes exactly like what stinky enlightened men of yesteryear used to drink by the fire.

It's funny, but anything but the alcohol of yore would probably be quite disgusting to our modern palates. I know this from experience because I checked out a medieval recipe book from the library and cooked some of the dishes. The only edible meals were the ones made with nuts or potatoes. Every other recipe called for way too much calf's blood, dandelions, and tree bark.

I will try any beer once, whether it is a sickeningly thick tar-ale or a bargain basement old-man can that says something about crystal clear waters. I tried just about everything when I lived in Canada. I miss the trips to the beer store -- a semi-socialist phenomenon where the names of beers are listed on a board (no pictures) and your purchases get anonymously sent out on a conveyor belt, the only outlet from the corrugated steel warehouse hidden behind the flapping plastic curtains. That was the only time I ever gained weight -- I ate chocolates and beer for six months solid.

In my ten or so years of tasting adventures I have come across a few nasties, so here's a short warning list.

Miller Chill. This is Miller's "Mexican" beer, pre-limed and with a dash of salt. Stick to Corona if salt and lime are your thing. This beer tastes like it was poured through the urine-soaked streets of Tijuana and scooped back into the bottle, making sure to include the hearty flavor of cigarillo butts. Budweiser answered this with Bud Lime, which causes a slightly less intense gag reflex than its competitor.

Sprecher Pizza Beer. A local invention we Fox River Valley residents should be ashamed of. How did this guy get Sprecher to brew his beer? It is actually made with pizza ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and basil. Sounds intriguing, but 9 out of 10 beer enthusiasts only try it once. I am saving you the trouble. Pizza burps without the full pizza belly are no fun. Plus, as many critics have mentioned, beers are paired with food because they complement the foods, not because they taste exactly like them. Yuck.

Tom Seefurth thinks he's "all that."

What next, wasabi beer to go with your sushi? Actually that sounds good...

It is perfectly fine to put spices in beer, but you can't just choose them based on the foods you like. Most men who would never admit to sniffing coriander and juniper go head over heels for these aromas in their liquor! Same for the fruity aromas in various weiss beers -- fruity drinks with twists are ok for boys if the fruit is suspended in the four magical ingredients.

Rogue Chipotle Ale. I actually like this one, but it is intense. It is actually smoky and spicy. It comes close to being too food-flavored, but not close enough to make it disturbing like the orange pizza water. If you like spicy, go for it. Otherwise, avoid this brew. Rogue's Dead Guy Ale is one every drinker can appreciate. And it hasn't even a whiff of formaldehyde.

As usual I am procrastinating on my homework, so I'll pick up my beer reviews later. I'm supposed to be writing about the problem of free will. Well, the problem of alcohol and the problem of free will are not entirely unrelated subjects!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fragments of Foolishness

I spent an evening with an old Moleskine, and wondered what disjointed knowledge the world might have of me if that little leatherbound pocket journal was all I left behind. If I was posthumously published in fragments, I might look something like this:

-- Brainstorming: A silly word, but no one has ever gone out of their way to think up a passable replacement. How about ACTION THINKING?

-- The dregs of December. Our logical Roman calendar loses sight of the important events in nature and life.

-- It's like legal heroin, only it doesn't let you sleep it off.

-- I have accepted the earth as my spiritual place.

--DROP academic writing. ADD philo religion.

-- 10:10am. I have an office. I have a phone line. I didn't think this position warranted such grandiose accomodations. They are buying me a new computer.

-- The man is the most self-aware yet completely relaxed person I have ever had the pleasure of observing.

-- Blisters on my feet from Friday's ten-mile walk in Jesus sandals. I don't know how Jesus did it.

--Why is there such a thing as "modern latin"? It can't be modern because no one speaks it.

-- Alliteration? Rhyme? Have they any place in fiction?

-- 12:15 am. My eye is watering from coughing on smoke and on my own words, not original because they were quoting my own words of the past. Days of future past. Past futures.

-- And Henry says, "Circumfused. As in, being confused by own's own circular thinking."

--Is anything a paradox for God?

-- I should be dead by now. (As you can tell from my handwriting I am nearly dead already.)

-- John 3:16 - For God so loveth the world that he gave us three dimensions in which we can go forth and multiply: forward, sideways, and up.

-- John 1:1 - In the beginning was the word, and some people took it way too seriously.

-- Bernays = Evil Genius

-- Two men's voices: 1. Resonant 2. Mellow

--The vending machine fizzed out a perfect crest of bubbles (not foam) and now they trace themselves on the wax coating that most probably is coating my stomach. Warm and gritty. The finish leaves a hint of gardenias. One should always be suspicious of floral notes in food products.

-- And I quote, "Her area of expertise was the complexity of solitude."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Head Traffic

I'm on the second floor of the library (that's the first floor in France) listening to Traffic and trying to do homework that should have already been done. Or, that I should have already done, to be more specific and culpable. No passive voice is to blame.

Every student has a week like this. Even bona fide grad school material like myself. There I said it. I'm bona fide.

I run a small risk by keeping this public blog, where curious and thorough admissions folk may find evidence of my frequent misspellings, sometimes Frasier-esque verbosity (recently exacerbated by French lessons), and my incriminating tones and voices that point to a blatant disregard for university administration, a childish preoccupation with words, and yes, a "work ethic" in retrograde. Worst of all, they will surely discover that I am not at all sérieuse!

So far, most of this journal does not detail my scholastic mishaps, you know, the kind that actually affect my grades. Tonight I will be(come) the most honest person I know and tell you all about them. Since they never affect my grades anyway.

Maintenant, instead of getting started on my Queen Elizabeth I paper, I'm listening to Traffic and writing to you. The organs and flutes keep my fingers tapping the borrowed keyboard (ancient library loaner laptop), but they are probably not conducive to scholarly outputs. I can picture myself composing some good fiction with 60s and 70s music as my background noise. But not academic work.

I don't listen to music when I write for school. I think that's the most idiotic thing I've ever seen.

Here's my secret: I'm a great procrastinator. And by great I mean I do a lot of it. And by great I mean I'm damn good at it.

I have lots of ideas. I keep everyone entertained and happy with my ideas. And my "insights." Then, eventually, when I get around to it, when I have no other choice, I actually write the ideas down one after another, throw in a couple of those insights here and there, until the collections of words miraculously form a "paper."

But I can't get started on things. Poe called it the "imp" of procrastination. His imp was bad enough he had to write about it when he should have been writing other things. So mine is that bad too.

I guess I don't feel too badly about this because I don't have a lot of nasty habits that waste time. I think I busy myself with habits that are enriching but aren't exactly what I should be doing en ce moment. Like this. And like managing the Philosophy Club, reading novels for pleasure, attempting to read random philosophy for pleasure, doing French lessons over and over, writing letters, or researching things online like how to make my own cider. All enriching activities, for sure.

I just made myself out to be an overachiever. I'm really just a glutton. I stuff myself with all the gooey, chocolaty knowledge eclairs I can get my mitts on, and I neglect my brain broccoli. It gets yellowed and crumbly in the crisper drawer, until I realize it's due the next day.

Sometimes I feel very guilty. I am overwhelmed with guilt. Should I be? Some people are good at some things. I am good at writing. If I wait until the last minute to produce it, that is between myself and my letters.

But I'm supposed to be writing about Liz I and her letters. So that's what I'll do. As soon as I help these guys in my head kill some dude named John Barleycorn. I wonder if he's friends with Jethro Tull?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Flaubert's First Time at the Writers' Group

I am reading Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary as part of my full-on assault on continental literature, begun this fall in an attempt to know all my Frenchman, Germans and Russians by their sentence structures in time for the GRE Subject Test.

I am disappointed! I had my hopes up, thought I would be blown away by the insight, romance, and sensuality of French literature. Flaubert misses the mark.

As an aside, before I start tearing Monsieur apart, I would like to note that I checked out a Proust reader from the library the next day, and I continue to be floored by it. Marcel Proust (along with other Marcels, i.e. Duchamp) is my new hero. Hope is not lost for me and French literature.

So, my problem (or one of them anyway) with Flaubert is this: the man cannot construct a scene. The entire novel is told in exposition, or in feeble attempts at scenes that are really very expository. How can you write a novel about love, sex, affairs, the wretchedness of women (if you will) without showing it in the charged, heated, fiery prose of the fully present immediate past tense?

To the first couple of chapters I gave the benefit of the doubt. Flaubert describes M. Bovary's upbringing, from which the narrator has some narrative distance. Exposition is fine for these scenes, and in 1857 I don't know if the world was ready for a novel that jumped between time periods a la Slaughterhouse V (Madame Bovary only moves forward in time but even that may have been confusing -- Flaubert doesn't announce it or anything). So the past tense, removed voice is probably the best choice. But then we move to the recent past (Bovary's first wife, his courtship of Emma), and then into the present (from Emma's wedding on), and we are still being "told" what happens, almost never "shown."

When describing Emma's life with Charles, everything is written as "She would walk the path," "He would say to her," "They would play games." This "would" sums up a series of walks on the path, exchanges between lovers, social evenings out, but almost never describes any particular day or night or passing emotion or passionate act.

There is some beautiful description in the work, but it is mostly of nature, houses, and men's attire. The rays of sunlight and the dusty road of Emma's walk with her Italian Greyhound, the noiseless bubbling water and glass-decorated walls of Emma's walk with Leon on the riverbanks, the curling eyelashes and creamy flushed cheeks of Emma's lovers. These images hold my attention.

Flaubert also makes some worthy attempts at describing very short scenes, which he peppers with literary devices. He seems to hit his stride when he gives himself over to a scene, and when he returns to expository language, it actually makes it hit just right. For instance, when Emma tosses her wedding bouquet into the flames and watches:

She threw it into the fire. It flared up fatser that a dry straw. Then it looked like a red bush in the ashes, slowly disintegrating. She watched it burn. The little cardboard berries burst, the brass wires twisted, the braiding melted; and the shriveled paper petals fluttered on the grate like black butterflies, then flew up the chimney.
When they left Tostes in the month of March, Madame Bovary was pregnant.
Gorgeous! The similies are nice, the symbolic disintegration of the bouquet with its twisting insides and melted edges is fantastic, and the return to expositon ("Madame Bovary was pregnant") actually give us a kick in the pants. It is then that he also returns from calling her "Emma." Emma is the girl who burned the bouquet. It is Madame who is pregnant.

Another problem. When some dialog miraculously appears, it is sandwiched by expository explanation, and then the first words of the very next paragraph will be "The next day..." When something like a scene takes place, Flaubert often runs away from it instead of using it to build momentum!

Only toward the end of the story does this get any better, a good example I remember being a scene between Leon and Emma where they actually play with each other's clothing while they talk. But even that is interrupted by expositon that stands in for dialog: "The clerk warmly explained that ideal natures were difficult to understand. He had loved her at first sight...[and so on]" Well, how the heck did he say all of that? If a character tells another "I loved you at first sight," shouldn't we get to be audience to that as it actually happens? Maybe Flaubert thinks that is unimportant?

And another thing -- if we've gotten into the clerk's pants, shouldn't we be calling him "Leon"?

So I pictured Flaubert at one of my writers' group meetings. We have certain syntactical and stylistic expectations, and most of us agree on some key points. Don't write fiction in the present tense. Don't use the passive voice unless you have to. Avoid the gerund when you can. Don't use ellipses or semicolons in fiction. And most importantly for Gustave, SHOW don't TELL, or SCENE not EXPOSITION.

After he reads a few pages, the best of us will begin to fear for him, to feel embarrassed for him at at listening to these words, knowing he'll never get anywhere unless he adds some dialog or brings the story into the "now." I picture the group leader looking over his manuscript, shaking her head, making the pages bleed with red ink.

There have been a few writers in the group who had Flaubertitis. My hand would get (haha...would get) tired of writing "dialog," "dialog," "dialog," "SHOW us," etc, in the margins.

Yeah, those ladies would tear Gus apart. I forgot to mention it's a women-only group. So even if Gustave were allowed to attend as a special guest, and even if we could get past his expository extravagance and find some enjoyment in it, we would all take exception to his chauvinistic treatment of Madame B -- er -- Emma.

Some Irishman wrote a line for the back of the book: "Possibly the most beautifully written book ever composed and the most important novel of the century." Um, do you read much? He should have had them underline "Possibly." Even if I conceded that some of my distaste for this novel is my own humble opinion, that the book really is a great work (I never said it should be stripped from the canon), I could still not begin to agree with the silly statement on the back of my Signet Classics edition. Regretfully, I cannot afford to buy reputable critical editions of every work, and even some of those must be taken with a box of sea salt.

So I think Flaubert may have a had a chance at that "most important novel," and at "beautifully written books" of all kinds if he had just attended a writers' group once in a while. I know it really helps me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Unfix that Prefix

On an idle night in Tucson, Arizona, my good friend Erica and I were drinking Framboise Lambic. While discussing the state of modern language, we became suddenly incensed at the words in English which have prefixes that cannot be "unfixed."

This is what happens when two friends who are semi-intellectual get together after two years of fond absence. She has a history degree and I (as the blog title indicates) am a student of English. Our conversations can get pretty outlandish. We've even invented our own philosophy: "Observationalism."

So in a bubbly raspberry haze we feverishly jotted down a list of the most egregiously prefixed offenders. Of course by the time we began making up definitions for our new prefix-less words (and had drunk more than one bottle of fizzy stuff), our tempers had cooled considerably. Having turned down an invitation to a comedy club that evening, we commenced at making our own comedy at the dining room table.

Our criteria for these words was that they have prefixes that can usually be separated from a word, and leave that word standing (i.e. un-, dis-, a-), and that they are not words for which the prefix's necessity can be easily explained by etymology (i.e. infiltrate, disgust). We also thought about words that have unnecessary or redundant prefixes, so that the word means the same thing without the prefix, or at least should mean the same thing without it.

My especial (there's a good one) thanks to a fat copy of the 1966 Oxford English Dictionary of English Etymology .

Disgruntled -- This is one of the most common words that people make fun of, probably because of its frequent use in the appellation "disgruntled employee." But really, you can't say someone is "gruntled." And if disgruntled means dissatisfied and angry, then gruntled would mean satisfied and happy. It certainly doesn't sound like it would mean that, even if it could be used as a word on its own. However, if you look into the word's Middle English origins, it makes sense when applied to someone who has been "made to grumble." Yet still -- shouldn't it be engruntled? Like when someone makes you angry you become enraged.

Nonchalant -- This bastard word has been kicked back and forth between Anglos and Francos for nearly a milleninum. So in its current form in the English language, nonchalant is far from pedigreed. To make a long story short, we only borrowed the verb from French (chaloir) that means "to be roused or fired with hope, zeal, or anger" and added our own "non-" prefix to make an adjective that suggests a negation of these intense feelings. For some reason we never borrowed the verb on its own to express our Anglophonic fires of hope, zeal, or anger.

Abyss -- The prefix "a-" has four different uses, all installed in the English language at different periods. In the case of abyss, it is used in its fourth listed form, as a prefix of negation or privation. These two types of uses seem to me to be at odds, but I am no etymologist. Lets go back further to find out why I think "byss" should stand on its own. The "byss" part of "abyss" comes from the Greek buthos, meaning depth. So when you tack an "a-" onto it, it means something that has depth, usually an immesurable depth, which is what the first person who added the "a-" probably intended. So why isn't a hole with a bottom (or a shallow hole) called a "byss?"

There are many more "a-" words that seem to be unnecessarily prefixed. The main part of the word is where the meaning is carried, and the "a-" just serves to tell us, "Yup, that's the way it is." For instance, when something is drifting, it is adrift, when something is in the air, it is aloft. But there are many more examples where the word has no meaning without its "a-" partner, like amazed or aghast. These "a-" words seem like products of a language figuring itself out, and many of them are remnants of late Old English. Shouldn't we have simplified by now? Perhaps it is our periodic return to metered poetry that keeps them alive. They are prettier than their often one-syllabled roots.

Unravel -- This word has a redundant prefix of "un-," which usually means a negation or deprivation. The word ravel does stand on its own, but it means precisely the same thing that unravel means. This is a case where we tacked on the "un-" because it felt right, and it has stuck. So from now on, try to say that your sweater is "raveling," not "unraveling."

Unloose -- Another interesting redundant "un-" sitiuation shows itself in the word unloose. To unloose is the same as to loose. Unloose, however, sounds more intense, even though "un-" is usually a negation.

-- Another word made to sound more intense by adding an unnecesary prefix: "up-." In what other direction would one lift?

Disenfranchise -- The most logical and proper form of this word is disfranchise -- to take away franchise, i.e. civil rights etc. To enfranchise is to give these things. If you say "I've disenfranchised you," it's like you giveth and taketh away in the same breath! Perhaps if you are speaking of the very person who gave the rights who is now taking them away, the commonly used disenfranchise would be applicable. Otherwise, lets try to keep things simple and avoid double prefixing at all costs!

Uncouth -- I like this word's history, because it's been tampered with! It has existed since Old English as uncuth, and had the same meaning it does today. But in 1896 it was first used as couth to refer to someone with manners and refinement. This is called a back formation, and I think it is highly linguistically inappropriate! Doing this to a word is, in my opinion, like assigning our modern cultural values to Renaissance humanists or to early American slave owners. Though the philologists may disagree, it must be appreciated that the word couth doesn't even sound like what it means -- for it was never before meant to mean anything on its own.

Uncanny -- Canny is an archaic word meaning the same thing as uncanny. My amateur opinion of what happened here: the word faded out of common usage, and was reintroduced when "un-" began to be used as a negative that denotes some kind of evil. Uncanny, in a time when "un-" was a scary sort of prefix, probably would have sounded more frightening than canny. By the time uncanny was in use, canny, on its own, had come to have many more definitons that were entirely unrelated to the supernatural.

This is by no means a complete list. I am leaving out the more offensive unfixing we worked on, including finding a newly unfixed word that (to us) means masturbate.

The Oxford and a common usage errors website have given me much to think about. What pains me and excites me at the selfsame (another good one) instant, is how language takes on a mind of its own in the hands of a society, as it crosses borders, and as it spends centuries in the mouths and hands of poets.

What becomes "common usage" is oftentimes irreversible, whether it makes linguistic sense or not. Some folks think a hundred years of a usage is long enough to declare it a permanent alteration. I am more conservative -- I don't even consider Renaissance English usage to be all that archaic, much less the 18th and 19th century usages that decorate English novels, yet that have become passe in contemporary or post-modern English. I would argue that some of the stupidities of post-modern English are quite reversible, and that some of the rare beauties of middle and modern English could quite possibly be resurrected.

(For more in that vein, see "Talk Victorian To Me" below.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thoreau at the Mega-Mart

Today I spent over an hour and a half at a giant supermarket. Crowded aisles notwithstanding, the decision making was extremely stressful and was the most time-consuming factor leading to the obliteration of my afternoon. Did you know there are at least forty brands of spanish olives available in northern Illinois?

We have all read or heard about the paradox of choice (and I've written on it here), but today I really noticed it at its most paradoxical. I learned from that book about the issue. I learned not to do too much comparing of prices, to "satisfice" and buy what looks good without agonizing over whether it is the perfect choice or the highest value. So I thought I would be safe at the Mega-Mart.

This particular mega-mart is employee owned. It's old fashioned inside, with the shallow carts that old people have to use because they can't bend down to place groceries in a modern deep cart. They don't even accept credit cards. So, for many more reasons, I thought I would be safe at the Mega-Mart.

I was excited to go there. I hadn't been to a large store in months. In good financial times I do all my shopping at Trader Joes. I pick up the things they don't have (i.e. plastic wrap) at Target, but all my food comes from TJ's. They only have about two types or brands of each food. The store is only seven or eight aisles wide, and the products I love are always there. I buy the exact same things every time, and glance at the endcaps for some new ideas and for the new beers.

Indian Dinner = TJ's brand Masala Sauce, Couscous, Garlic Naan, Tofu.
Jewish Dinner = Spinoza Everything Bagels, Cream Cheese, Nova Lox, Latkes.
Snacks = Fage yogurt, Fruit Leathers, Bean Taquitos
Beer = Something different every time, but their selection only spans 12 feet of shelf space.

And so on. It's very easy to shop when you love the food and it's always in the same spot in a tiny little store! Sounds like it may get boring, but for me it doesn't. Eight aisles offer plenty of variety, and the quality is amazing.

Lately, however, I've had to do some shopping at an inferior market -- ALDI. At ALDI the food is not so great. And there are only five aisles. And they only have one of each thing. At first I loved how easy it was to choose, and that they make you bring your own bags. But after a few trips I was beginning to doubt my solemn oath that I would be just fine in a socialist country where the market has only one government issue brick of cheese, bag of rice, etc. I wanted variety!

I pictured myself in Soviet Russia, fighting with very strong women over the last bag of dried milk till Tuesday. Then I pictured myself writing home, begging for a care package of assorted breakfast cereals and a cornucopia of cooking sauces.

It didn't help that last weekend, while I was in Chicago for the Humanities Festival, our professor took my classmate and I to a veritable food-fantasy-land. At Foodlife in Water Tower Place they admit you through a turnstyle and hand you a plastic card -- a golden ticket by golly! Every sub-gourmet dish you can dream of can be found somewhere in that labyrinth of sushi, veggie burgers, Nutella crepes, pumpkin milkshakes, steak soups, flavored teas, and wine. Again I doubted my oath -- capitalism seemed almost acceptable for that hour and a half.

And so, after weeks of "grocery rut" my trip to the unnamed Mega-Mart was with great anticipation. But as I already gave away, it was mostly an hour and a half of staring at ten shelves of olives and winding between stacks of bread in 250 varieties in vain search of a "British Muffin," as they are called at my beloved TJ's.

For a few sublime minutes I relived the euphoria of Foodlife, when in the cereal aisle I found no less that three diverse varities that were wholly new to me. But once I got the shiny boxes home, the feeling passed. I had pictured myself furiously scarfing down a dinner of cereal melange, soymilk and oat squares flying willy nilly. I haven't touched the oaty treasures, and if it is possible to have buyers remorse for a two dollar item, I think I am experiencing it now.

Although, for my $96 and change I did make off with a boatload of food. But not as much as $96 would buy at ALDI. (It would probably fetch one of each item in the store!) So maybe I need to give up my urges for variety. It is expensive and time consuming. Even if our capitalism was doing well, that would mean we had the capital for variety, but certainly not the time.

So later this evening when I picked up a copy of Walden, I started skipping around from chapter to chapter hoping to serendipitously alight on some words of wisdom. Of course it didn't take long.

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
That was exactly what I needed.

I'd better set aside a quarter for the shopping cart. It's back to ALDI next week. And to the seed catalogs in the spring.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge -- Part Three: "Pedagogy Please?"

This entry has been long anticipated by my readers and myself alike. It was months ago that I started the "Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge" series, and it's taken me this long to get up the nerve to write this final installment. So for once, my writer's "voice" may tremble a little this evening (though I'll try my best, as usual, to hide it behind humor).

Let's start by laughing together at this Police video from 1980 -- "Don't Stand So Close To Me"

So every girl has wanted to be teacher's pet at some point, whether she was interested in the "subject" or not. In fourth grade there was Mr. Savage (what's in a name?) who danced on tabletops to songs about math, and in high school there was the incredibly young Mr. C. who taught English as dramatically as he taught theater. And after graduation came my first fateful foray into adult relationships -- an engagement to a mentor I'd known since I was fifteen. I am not the only young woman I know who has had these feelings and experiences.

Even watching that video I just posted, I don't really laugh. It actually gives me a thing for Sting. (The teacher's conventional "hotness" doesn't do it for me).

This video is about high school, but let's forget for a moment about "laws." Of course "teach" has a lot to worry about when it comes to resisting the "jailbait." But this situation doesn't just come up in the high school classroom. It continues at the university, and perhaps even intensifies there -- the age gap closes, and the law (though not university policy) no longer applies.

This is not to say that scores of university romances happen every day. But it is to say that they may be happening inside the minds of young women, and affecting their studies.

I read an article in Bitchfest magazine (an unhappily titled rag -- it really is a good read) aptly titled "Hot For Teacher -- On the Erotics of Pedagogy." In the article, Jennifer Maher compares the female attraction to male professors with the male attraction to female professors. To make a long article short, we young women channel our urges into a love of the subject. Sounds pretty good. Young men, however, act out, and in extreme cases, inflict sexual violence on the objects of their desire.

Here is a non-violent but telling video to contrast the types of desire I'm talking about here. Van Halen's 1984 song "Hot For Teacher" (the above article's name source) has no dramatic backstory like that of "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Van Halen's version is simply a bunch of boys lusting after a lingerie clad, catwalking schoolteacher. Not only is the attraction represented as one-sided (the woman does not need to reciprocate -- she has no choice), but the social taboo that haunts the Police video seems to be completely absent. Also, the boys' lust is shared publicly -- they are a grubby little group of future gang-rapers. In the video's "epilogue," one of the boys actually grows up to be a pimp.

No wonder some of the female professors I admire dress like they fell into a box of Goodwill clothes.

Although the Police's song is more realistic and deals with some issues, Sting and his Policemen seem to present the girl's crush on her teacher as if it is a source of agony only for the teacher, not for the student. But "Don't Stand So Close To Me" does show the more private and personal nature of a girl's lust. She idealizes her teacher rather than objectifying him.

Although, he does get naked at the end of the video. For whom, I'm not sure.

So the feminist in me took off with this one for awhile. Back to my point -- women's education is affected by the influence of men in positions of authority. Of course none of us are outside of influence, but I think that women may go so far as to choose the wrong subject of study, change their beliefs and attitudes to match their hero's, or even jeopardize relationships outside of school. Let's see what the experts say; hopefully Maher (of Bitchfest) and myself will be proven wrong, as exciting as her subtitle "On the Erotics of Pedagogy" may sound.

To quote a more scholarly source, Ernest T. Pascarella states in his article "Student-Faculty Informal Contact and College Outcomes" that "as faculty members occupy an increasing proportion of a particular student's interpersonal environment, the greater the likelihood of the student's being influenced by faculty attitudes and intellectual values." And I'm going to make the crazy assumption that informal contact with faculty members whom the student adores, idolizes, etc, would influence the student on an even more fundamental level than just their attitude and intellect.

The young women at my school mostly latch onto women faculty members. In my group of honors students, I am the minority in having two male advisers. Nearly the rest of the lady students report to one lady professor each. I can't help but wonder if they are afraid of working with "grown men." Or perhaps the higher number of female faculty these days allows the women more choice in their mentors. Or perhaps it's just a new "safer" version of the old university romance beast. As the Bitchfest article I mentioned earlier would tell us, this female/female situation can be just as problematic as the male/female professor/student relationship.

Another perhaps -- my university is not a member of the "liberal arts elite" which according to Pascarella is the typical backdrop for student-professor intimacy. So the perhaps is, perhaps these girls are just comfortable with women because they are like moms or older sisters, etc. The nature of their relationship is not on some transcendental immerse-myself-in-thought level. When you take the laurels and ivy leaves and book-strewn desktops out of the picture, it suddenly seems less romantic.

This is in no way a complete essay or article, and I don't think I can finish it at this point. Maybe when I am in the position of the authority figure I can look back an reevaluate my thoughts on these things.

My title "Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge" indicates that I started writing these entries because I felt we women are being handed down doctrines that we are inclined to subscribe to when they are delivered by men we admire. I'm not sure what I think today. The Pascarella article goes on to prove that students with "high-interaction" relationships with professors are more sure of their career choices, and more confident academics. That sounds like a good outcome. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, there's nothing wrong with a couple of years of professor idolatry if it leads to higher academic achievements.

Thanks to my friend L.J. for that reminder: "...speak your mind -- even if your voice shakes."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reading Hawthorne in the Fall

A cancelled class left me with a free moment or two. It was a fall day -- the blue-sky kind, you know, where it looks like summer if you look straight up. If you find a good patch of sun those days can feel like summer too. My search didn't take long.

I balanced my obscene fountain drink on the arm of a bright blue, south-facing bench, and balanced myself and my book on the seat. "A warm place," I muttered. I talk to myself in public, but quietly and mysteriously enough that (hopefully) no one can tell.

I pried open the fat volume of American literature, and landed right where I wanted to be. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is easy enough to find -- since the entire novel is reprinted in the anthology, the pages are a different tint of white from the rest. Penguin managed to find a tree that slices even thinner than the delicately shaved trunks that make up Norton's Anthologies.

The sun was at forty-five degrees. There was a breeze. I couldn't face the sun and read through the reflection off the bright white pages, nor could I tolerate the cold that was settling into the north-facing back of my neck, as much as my neck appreciated the touch of the breeze. I had to pick a side. So I presented my best side, my right side, to the sun.

So I delved into "The Custom-House," the introduction to the novel. I have read The Scarlet Letter twice before, but never had I seen it with its intro intact. I have had the same pocket version of it since I was about eleven years old.

My middle-school class had got the leftover books when the high school cleaned out their library, so I naturally had rifled through and took home several volumes which were far too advanced for a sixth grade mind. I slowly got through that Hawthorne novel, re-reading every sentence and then every paragraph, and then prompty forgot what I'd read. I have a feeling I retained some of the vocabulary and I certainly gained a lifelong fondness of nineteenth century sentence structures. But nothing of Hester or Dimmesdale was left in my skull when I dusted the book off for eleventh grade english. Although a pass at the novel as a sixteen-year-old was much easier.

This is perhaps the only book with which I've had such a long relationship. However, now that I plan to be a scholar of books (and other written things), a familiarity spanning only seventeen years will soon be a trifle.

These thoughts distracted me from my reading, and so did Hawthorne himself. Having only read the novel and some few short stories of his, I had no idea about his sense of humor. At each chuckle I'd look up an be even further distracted by the trees.

I remembered then that it was not summer, despite the sunny positioning of my neck and face and the brightness everywhere. No, some of the bright things were trees, and that meant fall. I tried to pick a name for each of the colors of the three trees that formed a display by the street.

One was definitely gold, the kind of splendid gold you'd imagine in a palace. But that is so material, I thought, Why does the tree have to look like something of value? The next tree looked like a pumpkin color, but as if a little white had been added to tint it a softer orange. It was Dreamsicle orange! But why does this tree have to look like a food product? I thought, Why does it remind me of an artificial flavor? The last tree was the same species as the first, and upon examining its particular hue of gold, I was then in a quandry over which gold was really more "Golden." I decided not to assign symbols or even colors to trees. They are trees, and I should be able to take them in as such, without mitigation through any kind of tree-valuation system.

Between the trees and the changing sunlight (a puffy cloud blotted out the sun for less than a minute and I felt my lips turn purple), I did not get far in my reading. I watched the clouds to see when the sun might make its reentrance, but I could not perceive any movement. I ran for cover from that eerily static, painted-on sky and warmed myself in the library before heading home.

After the sun had gone down, I tackled it again. Only now my house seemed to be colder than my breezy afternoon on the bench. I put the heater on a modest 65 degrees, and sat right next to it. My afternoon dilemma was reenacted. I could not face the heater for fear of the book catching fire (or my feet catching fire), and I could not put my back to it for my lips were again turning purple and my nose was surely about to follow. So I had to choose a side. The heater got my earlier neglected left profile.

The heater keeps turning off. Hawthorne keeps making me laugh and look up. I am still not finished reading.

". . . the waywardness of an April breeze; which spends its time in airy sport, and has its gusts of inexplicable passion, and is petulant in the best of moods, and chills oftener than caresses you, when you take it to your bosom; in requital of which misdemeanours it will sometimes, of its own vague purpose, kiss your cheek with a kind of doubtful tenderness, and play gently with your hair, and then begone about its other idle business, leaving a dreamy pleasure at your heart."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Evolution of the Music Review


Several months ago I found an ancient music review online, stored in the vaults of a defunct Steely Dan fanize called Metal Leg. Defunct.

What was I doing there? Looking for Steely Dan reviews of course.

It's a late night and I'm in the groove with the Dan. I'll keep us reminded of the background music for this post throughout.

"I learned to work the saxophone...and I play juuuust what I feeeeel..."

This review of the Aja album, written by Mr. Ken Emerson for the Boston Phoenix and published in 1977, impressed me because of Emerson's thoroughness, his almost literary analysis, and his near-academic writing style as applied to pop-culture.

I enjoyed it so much I was ready to mark it as something novel and unique, the pinnacle of review writing. In fact, this one was so darn good the guys who run the fan site put it up even though it's completely negative! But then I got to looking at reviews by Emerson's contemporaries, and I was met with similarly dense articles. Emerson's still takes the cake for quasi-scholarly, philosophical music reviews, but all in all, reviews used to be much more than they are today.

Since I do not listen to anything composed in the twenty-first century, and since twenty years is a wide enough time gap for comparing our reviews, I did a comparison of the Dan review with a 1995 review of one of my favorite 90s bands, Alice in Chains. This review was written by Mr. Jon Wiederhorn and published in Rolling Stone magazine. I chose it because I still remembered this 1995 review, though I had read it when I was only fifteen years old.

Why did I remember a review from thirteen years ago? Because I couldn't stand the writing!

"kick off your high heeled sneakers, it's party time...give us some funked up music, she treats you nice..."

The Essay

The two reviews are typical of their eras. They differ in which aspects of the albums are given the most attention (i.e. lyrics, music, historical context, biographical context, etc.), types of analysis applied, and the reader's expected level of familiarity with the "text."

I will start with the last point, it will be illustrated without much effort from me once all the other points are out of the way. The authors have different expectations of the readers. We will see how the seventies author assumes that we have already listened to the album, or at least have a close familiarity (whether it be amicable or acrimonious) with Steely Dan, and that the review will give us a better understanding of the music we've heard. The nineties author assumes that we have not heard the Alice in Chains album, that we are perhaps not even familiar with the well-established band, and that his review will help us decide whether to buy their new album.

Perhaps Wiederhorn didn't hear Billy Joel when he sang, "you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine."

Now the second and first points (I've been reading too many "backwards point" essays lately), the difference in the types of analysis used and in the time spent on different aspects of the album. Luckily the structures are similar so we can easily compare and contrast.

"when Josie comes home, so bad, she's the best thing we've ever had . . . she's the raw flame, the live wire . . ."

"To twist 'Reelin' In The Years' out of context, the 'everlasting summer' of the '60s was 'fading fast' when Steely Dan began writing the decade's obit in 1972." Both reviews begin with a bit of a history lesson about the bands, but the Dan review places the music within the context of the post-1960s counter-counter-culture era. After a genius, biting introduction ("And the record is Steely Dan's first failure because Becker and Fagen have lost their arrogant sense of place and purpose."), we get a lesson on the futility of utopia and free love, and a back-handed kudos to the Dan for ". . . amassing a devastating critique of the sensibility of the '60s and . . . proffering their own as infinitely more sensible." I love that! Dan the revisionists, the reformers, the inception of "Danism."

The Alice in Chains review begins with this bland piece of historical reference: "The older generation always complains that hard rockers are an angry, unstable bunch prone to violent, antisocial and frequently self-destructive behavior." How generic can you get? While Chains members were not known for any particular acts of violence, self-destruction was certainly at the top of Layne Staley's to-do list. This, I suppose, is the author's segue into the subject of drug addiction as a background for the bands achievements and hardships. All of this is summed up in two short paragraphs.

In the body of the reviews both authors discuss song lyrics and sound, in some cases track by track. Again Emerson's analyses poke the brain! And Wiederhorn's just lie there.

Emerson picks apart the Dan's lyrics, launching into an essay-within-a-review on Steely Dan's history of misogynism, with albums like "Can't Buy a Thrill" as cases in point. The feminist or gender theory analysis here goes so far as finding phalluses in the lyrics of five or six songs, in the forms of guns and needles.

Some psychoanalysis happens as well, mixed with the author's analysis of the musicians themselves. Songs about holed-up criminals and doped up sax players lead Emerson to wonder how Donald Fagen and Walter Becker relate to these characters, what their motives are, and why we spend so much time inside their heads.

Wiederhorn's analysis of Alice's lyrics and the relationship of music to musician is again bland and superficial. "If Jar of Flies was the key that unlocked the group's creative potential, then this new disc is the musical rebirth. What really makes Alice in Chains a poignant artistic statement is the band's unflinching candor." How melodramatic.

Finally, the thing I remembered most about the Chains review was the description of the sounds. The language Wiederhorn uses is so thick and soupy, and although the album he is describing could also be called thick and soupy, I still am grated upon by his word choices. They are even more ridiculous to me because the review is written to convince the reader to buy the CD -- so the reader has not heard the music, and Wiederhorn thinks he can sell the album by describing it like this: "Alice's songs are still dipped in a quagmire of surging guitars and throbbing bass, only this time they're laced with layered, fluorescent licks and soaring vocal harmonies . . . " and then, "'Grind' shimmers and shudders beneath a web of trippy wah-wah guitar . . ." and then, "a nightmarish vista that begins with a sluggish riff, peaks with a sprawling solo layered over demonic chatter and ends with an atmospheric mélange of wailing guitars."

Can't stand it. And if you've ever heard Alice in Chains you'd know that these descriptions could be of just about any one of their songs.

Emerson's only attempt at describing sound is mixed in with his essay points, and it seems, like the entire review, to be addressed to a veteran of the Dan. During his argument about Steely Dan's studio quality sound and how their being "hermetically sealed" in a recording booth had cut them off from the music world, he describes the chorus of what he thinks is their greatest recorded performance, "My Old School": "a lurching, almost epileptic, guitar solo against a backdrop of bemused saxophones. "

And that's it. It does smack a little of Wiederhorn's style, but the Dan-fan who reads this knows that this kind of sound is atypical of Steely Dan's music. The description is funny because it's unlikely but true. And I'm pretty sure Emerson was trying to be funny -- not trying to impress us with his pocket thesaurus of Ten-Thousand-and-One Grungy Words.

If this sort of comparison interests you, or if you are an avid music review reader or even just a lover of music, I suggest checking out the two reviews for a better idea of what I'm trying to get at here.

In conclusion, I think these reviews show (among other things) that by the 90s music had become a commodity, and that musical literacy was on the decline, even among writers on the Rolling Stone staff. And now, in the era of the endless playlist, we go through tunes like paper plates. But in the 70s, that great musical decade which I am sad to have missed by a mere ten months, people bought LPs and played them again and again (often enough to do a "close-reading" of the texts if you will), and stuck to their music genres like religious beliefs.

" . . .they stab it with their steely knives but they just can't kill the beast."

Now onto the Steely Dan/Eagles feud.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fancy Footnotes

I am reading a lot of "Ye Olde English" and "Ye Olde Middle English" these days. I like it. But sometimes the reading goes very slowly.

The problem I am having with my Norton Anthology of medieval literature is the overabundance of footnotes. The editors use the notes to clarify historical context, define unfamiliar words, or clarify the unclear grammar of yore. The first type of footnotes are usually appreciated, and can be conveniently skipped over if a reader is savvy enough to figure out when they are about to be directed to a historical footnote, i.e. the little "1" is next to the name of a saint or a city.

The other two types of footnotes (definitions and grammar clarifications) however, should be used sparingly. Moreover, they should not be repeated.

After reading Sir Thomas Mallory and the Gawain poet, I have a good idea of what many of the quirky medieval terms mean, and how some of the archaic verb forms work. "Wit" used to mean "know," and it was conjugated as wit, woot, and other funny forms that sound like owl calls. "Wert," however, just means "were." The first note on each of these words was all I needed.

But the editors felt it necessary to label every one! So in the middle of some already dense middle English, as I am using the margin notes to understand the very weird words, my eyes keep catching little ones, twos, and threes, and darting down to the bottom of the page to search for the corresponding number, which nine times out of ten precedes a tidbit of information I had long stored away.

The editors chose to print Chaucer's Canterbury Tales "untranslated" which makes it a lot of fun (I mean it). But now my reading is going slower than ever. The professor handed out "translations" taken from a paperback edition of the Tales, but they just don't do the language justice. I would rather like to get through the middle English version instead, but that endeavor may take longer than my midterm schedule allows.

In the past I have had the same trouble with Shakespeare's plays. By now I have found the versions and publishers that I like, and I can skim through a play with only minor distractions from the well placed notes in, for instance, the Oxford editions. But unfortunately, more archaic and obscure literature like Margery Kempe or Marie de France is not as readily available in thousands of formats like Shakespeare's plays. So we are at the mercy of the editors -- they may choose to give us no notes at all or to distract us endlessly with repeated information. Usually they choose the latter method of footnoting.

Although the Norton Anthologies are printed on Bible-thin pages I still think they might save a tree or two if they cut back a little on the footnotes.

I hope that it becomes clear to editors of critical editions of anthologies and single works that those who are reading these kinds of books are interested in the material -- perhaps they are even English majors or PhD students! Some anthologies are certainly intended for high school and lower level college courses, but period specific anthologies and critical editions of single texts are probably being read a little more closely and by an audience that is a bit more sophisticated than your average reader of a collection of "stories."

Finally, I wonder at the intent of all these notes. Are they trying to make it easier, to reach out a hand to students who struggle with reading and help them over ye olde river of middle English? Do they think of their burgeoning notes as a sign of their benevolence to us? Or are they convinced that today's scholars of literature are completely hopeless when it comes to learning and retaining new words? Do they make fun of us as they type up their notes?

If I have to read a footnote definition of "woot" one more time in this edition, I shall consider my intelligence officially insulted.

Please save the forests, save the eyes of English students (we certainly need them to stay sharp for years to come), and save time for everyone involved -- stop the fancy footnote work!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Good Old American Frugality

Today's topic in my American Literature class was Ben Franklin's The Way to Wealth. Reading Poor Richard's illustrious proverbs really got me to thinking about my own poorness and some of my unhealthy attitudes about money.

This hit me even harder because of the reproachful tone of the "address" Franklin delivered in 1747 as "advice" to his fellow colonists in the face of rising British taxes. I had just spent the summer taking lessons from On Walden Pond, in which Thoreau did not scold me, but only upheld those few healthy attitudes I already had about the economy and personal frugality. My favorite line: "Beware of any enterprise that requires new clothing."

Anyhow, the two thoughts that I took away from Franklin are conflicting (this came up in class as well): Franklin is doing a public service, a kind of 18th Century credit counseling. Yet Franklin is skirting the issue of the unjust taxes levied on himself and his contemporaries. He avoids the question, like a good politician, and comes out looking like a ray of hope.

Franklin offers sound advice on frugality, simplicity in living, industriousness. Surely if the colonists controlled their spending they would not feel the brunt of the taxes so harshly:

"[T]he Taxes are indeed very heavy, and if those laid on by the Government were the only Ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them . . . but we are taxed twice as much by our Idleness, three times as much by our Pride, and four times as much by our Folly."

He admits the taxes are unfair, yet he the only correction he offers (for now) is for the colonists to give up their "dainties," their "leisure," and their use of credit.

Today's economy is failing us, and we have all tightened our belts in a similar fashion. We are giving up our lattes, we are working overtime, and we are trying as hard as we can to cut up all our credit cards. Even if we have not made it this far in our frugality, by now we all know that this kind of sacrifice is what needs to happen if we are to keep ourselves (and our individual "selfs") afloat.

However, today's bad guys are not British tax men. They are not even American tax men. No, as a quasi-socialist (call me red, pink, or whatever color you wish) you'll never hear me ask for lower taxes (at least not for those who can feed themselves). I am poor, and in the 3.5% tax bracket. That's the way it should be for me. And if I was rich (you can hold me to it) I would not complain as my taxes inched up to the 15%, 20% etc. brackets. I know what taxes are for. It's a good function of a democracy for its fabulously well-to-do members to keep everyone else afloat, and for its getting-by members to help out.

Today's bad guys are kick-backed politicians, lobbyists, corporations, oil barons (you've heard them all so I won't keep going) . . .

How to Spend Money

Back to the politician's economy solutions: No matter what the crisis, we have to admit that today's politicians are taking a totally different tack from Ben Franklin's sound (though incomplete) advice. They want us to spend more!

Instead of giving money to communities or for other social and infrastructural needs, they use our tax money to bail out airlines, auto manufacturers, and other corporations with whom we can spend money. And all so we can keep giving these businesses and industries our money.

Hey wait, Bush gave us that "economic stimulus package" to help us out! I tried to stuff it under a matress and ruin Bush's plan, but I'm poor enough that I eventually had to spend the damn thing.

We're all part of one big economy, so now that the whole thing is in trouble, we are supposed to give it our all to uphold some invisible, insanely complex system that none of us outside Washington and Wall Street completely understand. "Now More Than Ever! Spend money to save America!"

Spend whose money? Capital One's? Disover Card's?

If America "is" an economy, I think the people as a whole, not just individuals, have become something totally separate from "America."
I understand why I should vote with my dollar, why I should buy local food, products from American manufacturers. I don't want people to lose their jobs. I don't want local businesses to close. But I don't understand how giving money to Wal-mart, American Airlines, or BP helps anyone but Wal-mart, American Airlines and BP . . . and their stockholders.

I don't own stock. Do you? Most people in the 3.5% tax bracket don't own stock. And they can't spend any more money to help "save America." We shop for groceries, and then we're tapped.

Let's Look Ahead

I know people will keep crying about lost jobs. But is keeping the auto industry alive on life-support, for instance, going to solve anything in the long run? We will have to stop driving someday, you know. I feel bad when I see a closed dealership, but I also feel relieved. Every third front lawn in suburbia now has a FSBO Hummer or speedboat on it. The sooner the gas abuse bubble pops the better.

I think that the future will hold different, better jobs for us that don't involve ties to oil, cars, pharmaceutical companies, health insurance giants, or any other huge industries that have paid their way into the government's harem of sugar babies.

More Skirting (from them)

Maybe when the economists and politicians started writing speeches about the recession, they took a look back at Franklin. They didn't have much use for all that hooey about saving money, but they did borrow his evasive technique.

Nothing we have been hearing lately has anything to do with what the government is doing to us, how Bush's spending has gotten us into a mess, how a lack of laws protecting consumers and workers, and a lack of regulations for creditors and corporations has led to the plight of the middle-class consumer. It's all about what we can do for the economy, aka "America."

More Ranting (from me)

I am no economics major, but I know a load of bullshit when I see it. Think what you will about what constitues the "perfect economy." What's eating me, in short, is that our national identity (at least on the domestic front) is now defined by our economic identity, and consequently, our people are defined by their economic status.

In DuPage County, seven miles to the west of my newly Democratic Kane County, the Republicans are all but "conservative." Sure they go to church and they have money, but they are very socially liberal. Gays, bi-racial couples, interfaith events, yoga classes, Planned Parenthood clinics all dot the DuPage landscape. Yet the values of the friendly two-storey dwellers take a back-seat when election time comes. Their concerns turn from inalienable rights for all to protecting their wallets. No matter what a citizen believes in his heart, it seems his money and Capitalism have a way of taking center stage. So the rich vote for the other rich who do not identify with their values.

I'm taking Ben's advice to heart, because I need to survive and because I don't like to be wasteful. Oh yeah, and because I am ready (absolutely ready) to see where this capitalism shit goes when it all comes crashing down.

I don't like to write politics, but when literature leads me to it I can't resist.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Now More Than Ever

I thought this ugly concatenation had gone by the wayside, but yesterday a Chevy commerical made it apparent that this tenacious turn of phrase is not going to die quietly.

"Now More Than Ever!" began the announcer, and I hid my face because I knew spinning cars and fast cutting were on their way. (I can't stand spinning things in commercials.)

Now more than ever, Chevy can eat it.

History of "Now More Than Ever"

"Now more than ever..." has always been around as a (not perfectly) good way to start a sentence. It's a modifier that places something in time like "Once upon a time..." or "In today's economy..."

However, I am fairly certain the slogan version of this phrase ("Now More Than Ever!") is a product of the post-9/11 victim mentality. We were hurting, and the fallout from the tragedy caused us to pull together (for a little while). Everything, according to politicians and advertisers, had become more intense and poignant and imporatant than it had ever been in the history of our nation. And so, "Now More Than Ever" was born.

After the patriotism of post-9/11 died down, the politicians and advertisers were left with a catchy phrase. Yet there was no specific tragedy to which it could be applied after it had held such a noble office as the number one official post-9/11 slogan (followed close behind by "These Colors Don't Run.") They had to cheapen it somehow, make it more applicable to daily life. So they started by taking it down a notch, and applying it only to the things Americans take as almost seriously as patriotism and revenge -- their cars and their oil.

Today's Usage of "Now More Than Ever"

I first started seeing the less serious definition of "Now More Than Ever" in American car commercials, and more recently in commercials for gas stations (oil companies I guess).

I can't figure out what the meaning is -- we need cars now more than ever? We should buy American now more than ever? We need to spend money now more than ever? And the gas -- we should buy more, now more than ever, because we're fighting so hard for it?

How about, "Now More Than Ever..." and then "whatever we want you to believe or buy." And if you aren't convinced by "Now More Than Ever" the terrorists are going to find you.

I can't remember specific products because the "Now More Than Evers" have been pretty sparse lately, so if you remember any funny ones please feel free to add a comment and I'll post them.

I know I have seen it in commercials for household products (aimed at the housewife, i.e. "Now more than ever, you need more time...") I know there are a few albums by that title (can it be used as a title?). One of them is electronic music, so that title may be apt. I'm fairly certain it's been used to advertise weight loss products, and of course, in 2008 political speeches.

Taking Back a Useful Phrase

If used properly, in moderation, and without the intention of manipulating the public, "now more than ever" is an okay way to say just that: "Now more than ever..."

The first rule is, you have to say something AFTER you say "now more than ever." For years now we have accepted this sentence fragment as an embodiment of a whole idea, of an era, of our own struggle toward making things better. But that's all it is, a fragment. Now WHAT more than ever? And why now? It should be explained.

I found it doing noble work as a modifer (its proper job title) at a poverty-fighting organization: “Now more than ever, poor countries need a fair trade deal. Rising food and fuel prices are hitting the poorest hardest and undoing progress on poverty reduction.” They gave it a job, and they gave it an explanation. Bravo, Oxfam.

But I've also found charities abusing it in the manner of politicians. One charity put out a pamphlet about human rights entitled "Now More Than Ever." It explained it with a subtitle, but they are still guilty of using this sentence fragment in bold red letters to get the reader's (confused) attention.

I know my approval of that particular Oxfam quote may denude my political sentiments (as if you hadn't already guessed what they look like). Maybe you think the slogan was perfect for 9/11, that it said everything we had to say in four words. Maybe you think it's appropriate wartime propaganda. Even if that were true, no sane person could argue that using such a loaded phrase to manipulate someone into buying a car is ethical.

Word Logic

There is still a problem, even though our phrase is certainly being put to good use by some responisble parties, with the logic of someone saying "Now more than ever." It is not a perfect phrase.
The whole thing is an assumption, almost a lie. How does anyone who says, "Now more than ever" know it's true? Have they lived forever? Did they do hours of research before making the statement? People use it in impromptu speeches all the time. They just pull it out of their hats and put it on like a "stars and stripes" necktie at which no one can laugh; like it is a phrase that cannot be doubted.

The extemporaneous speakers of "Now more than ever" are counting on the general sentiment still being that you are anti-American if you doubt the phrase "now more than ever." Remember when Jesus used to say it, when it was capitalized, and when we all nodded our heads and said, "Mmm hmm," or, "Gosh yeah!" under our breath at each utterance? "Now More Than Ever..." It must be Truth!

from http://carapace.weblogs.us/

Friday, August 22, 2008

Modern Meanings for Modern

Modern Art

When I write an essay in which chronology is important (The Life and Works of Professor X, etc.) I always find myself in a quandry over when to use the word "modern" and when to use the word "contemporary."

Both words have multiple meanings, and the funniest thing about these words is that both can refer to times long gone or to the present time. Let's ignore the Webster definitions. The scholarly definitions for these words come from art, from criticism, from philosophy, from historians.

"Contemporary" is the easier word to use correctly. Its use is still fairly close to how Webster would want us to use it. The scholars have let it be the word that the general popuation can continue to use when they mean "something that looks like it was made recently" or "something that is hip to the times." It also still retains its meaning of "a person who lived and worked at the same time as another person." This is how we usually find it in essays.

The first meaning I gave for "contemporary" becomes a problem however, when you start to talk about art or literature or any of those other subjects that have their critics and their words with Capital Letters (which may or may not have been accepted as words with no capitalization by now -- to further complicate things). "Contemporary art" is what a layperson would call art made today. A scholar has to find the right word -- is it postmodern? antimodern? It's certainly not "modern art," even though that is what many more lay persons would call it.

So we've arrived at the first accepted definition of "modern." Actually it's not that easy. If you call it "Modernism" you're talking about art and culture in the first half of the 20th Century. If you call it "Modernity" you're taking it all the way back to the 17th Century. The time period for "modern" varies from discipline to discipline, but we can say for simplicity's sake, that it's post-renaissance and it's not what's happening today.

Modern Chairs

There is no moving wall set up for "modern" however. It's not as if fifty years from now "modern" will be altered to include up to the 1990s. By then we were postmodern. "Modern" will always stop around 1950 for many. And it will never stop for others. So what do we do? Do we keep appending "post" every few decades until we're postpostpostpostmodern? We chose poorly when we chose "modern" as the name for any time period. Future historians will have to overhaul us.

Antimodern is one I just learned. Means what it sounds like it means. I like that in a word/movement/philosophy. But not everyone is keen on antimodern.

Do you ever look at the shelves of survey books on literature or philosophy? There are so many with the word "modern" in the title. I am never sure what I'll get when I pick one up.

(Early) Modern Philosopher

I looked up what the philosophers think is modern on Wiki (I have it on good authority that Wiki is 66.6% god. And the human part is always honest about its failings.):

They use a lot of ambigous terminology on purpose! They can't decide amongst themselves what "modern" really is. You'd think philosophers would be engaged in an ongoing 'lectic about the true meaning of "modern." I'm sure Modern is floating around up there somewhere with Plato's Beauty and Equal. We won't know the essence of "modern" until we love the right little boy.

While looking online for doctoral programs in literature that offer an emphasis in criticism, I had all but given up on one university -- until I discovered that all of their literary criticism and theory courses were under the heading "Modernism." It was not even a sub-department of English lit. They have their very own professors of Modernism.

I'm not going to go so far as to make up my own definitions for various prefixed and suffixed versions of "modern," but I have been doing some research to make sure I use the most appropriate form for any given subject or time period. And if a professor has a problem with that, I'm going to ask for an essay (with sources) from that professor on how to use the word "modern." Or at least to be directed to a handbook on it.

Perhaps I should contact the Modern Language Association? Maybe they'll know what to do about this mess.

Modern Language

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Course in General Egoism

I purchased a copy of de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics from an online bookseller at Amazon.com. I purposely chose one listed as "heavily marked" -- I always buy the most scrawled on copies I can find in the vain hope that some genius of a grad student left tracks worth following or penned insights in the margins that might make a confusing text unfold its secrets.

If the notes aren't that earth-shattering, they are usually helpful just the same. At least they give me jumping off points: if the reader sees something I overlooked, or says something I disagree with, that's fodder for an essay or preparation for a discussion. I have a "good reading copy" of Barthes' Mythologies with some fine notes by a sharp female undergrad. "Sarah B____, Anthropology 321, Spring 1981." She taught me some Greek words with her enthusiastic marginalia.

If the former owner of my marked up books turns out to be a total dunce, there are usually notes worth laughing at, at the very least. Or obvious notes that I can easily ignore.

My de Saussure copy unfortunatley did not provide me with anything helpful or even amusing. In fact, the former owner's notes became more of a distraction than anything. I had to find a way to use them to enhance my reading of the book, since the red-inked chicken scratching refused to be ignored, flowing from the side margins into the top or bottom, sometimes right over the text. But it was not so much the visual noise of the notes that made me incapable of pushing them to the side; what was being said kept me reading them, and scoffing at them, and scribbling next to them.

I started out by responding in a kind of parallel play, choosing a clean, new margin for my notes, as if I was telling de Saussure "I agree with you, not that guy over there. What do you think of this?" As the other student vied for de Saussure's attention it escalated to a direct confrontation between the note-taker and myself, and I began addressing him directly in the same soiled margin, disagreeing with him and berating him. "Leave it to the sociologists!" "God, you are such a dork!" Finally, I became so fed up with is intrusion on my reading that I had to tell him to shut the hell up. "Give it a break man!"

The now very heavily marked, unsalable book was owned by one Ferguson M. A_______, III; the title page bears his hand written "Ex Libris" stamp. Already, I was urged to respond. Underneath this I wrote, "Robyn Byrd (the first)."

Before the introduction was through, Fergy, as I came to call him (because I imagine that's what his mother calls him) had become my arch-nemesis. He had a peculiar hang-up with using or inventing terms prefixed by "self-" (self-serving, self-paradox, self-glorifying), and it soon became apparent that he (himself) was quite the egoist/egotist.

I am certain he hoped that his genius notes would be read by some impressionable undergrad who would feel so indebted to the author of those marginal insights, that the student would look Fergy the Third up in the linguistics department (where he would surely be chair by that time) at his university, and beg to be his pen pal or tutee. Oh that first email from a stranger would be so sweet!

Here are some gems from the first half of the book (I've transcribed the text here, and I've added some scans of his handwriting for full effect). Section:Chapter:Line number at the top. S is for Saussure, F is for Fergy. I've faithfully summarized for de Saussure where the text to which Fergy was responding was too long to write out here. My commentary is in red. Not because I'm like Jesus, but because I'm emulating Fergy. I don't know if I can pull of the attitude, but I'll try.

S: The third period [in linguistics] began when it was discovered that languages could be compared with one another.
F: One could deduce this easily and leave the 'proof' to lays like Bopp.

Lays like Bopp!? Are you a scientist Fergy? A linguist? I think you are as "lay" as I am. The best part is he drew a little caret and added "easily" afterward.

Intro:I:14 (continued)
S: [Bopp] did see that connexions between related languages could furnish the data for an autonomous science.
F: . . . to call this an autonomous science is self-serving. Communication must be approached as an art - not science.

Oh man, Fergy. I think it's going to take a dissertation to prove that one. Maybe a suitcase full of them. What have you gotten yourself into?

S: (A paragraph about the progress of linguistic study to date, and its limitations)
F: The plants in the garden 'sing' all the time. It is Man who tends 'his' garden and shuts himself off from the song. And then, arrogantly, reinvents singing.

This is one of Fergy's more eloquent responses. Hi-falutin' and snobby, but eloquent. I have to respond though. He is complaining about how linguistics has made language its own study, and how linguists think they have made advances. Well Fergy, I think it's true of many subjects we study that the answers are always there waiting to be discovered, and we are proud of ourselves when we finally think we've discovered them. How else should we behave? We're not being arrogant. We're just the only creatures who can theorize, so that's what we do.

S: But ought linguistics on that account to be included in sociology?
F: This 'turf grabbing' always amuses me.

Linguistics is one of the most cross-applicable, multidisciplinary studies I can think of. This isn't 'turf grabbing,' it's de Saussure trying to find a place for linguistics, giving examples of how broad it can be. Psycholinguistics, cultural lingustics, structural linguistics. . . scholars study all those things, and I don't think they fight over who's allowed to study what part of it. Even if they do, it's not Fergy's place to decide for them who gets what!

S: But a paradoxical consequence of this general interest is that no other subject has fostered more absurd notions, more prejudices, more illusions, more fantasies.
F: A science of talking communication is the original self-paradox. How can we talk about talking without realizing the limitations of self-reference, i.e. how is it that God can talk to God? And not misunderstand, or realize that the puppet is playing in the mirror, again.

Nice punctuation Fergy, as usual. There is just too much going on here. I can't even respond. What the hell is a self-paradox and how does he know which self-paradox (if there is such a thing) is the original!? This is where I became certain he was not just writing for himself.

S:Everything is internal which alters the system in any way whatsoever.
F: And I submit that what is internal is truly the internal moods, feelings, needs. Self-glorifying conduct can be seen as merely brighter pin and tail feathers.


S: The sound represents the entire word as a whole.
F: Oh, I think not.

Wouldn't a question mark and a circle around that text suffice? I can almost hear Fergy's "scoff, scoff!"

Part One:I:97
S: (A diagram of pictures and their Latin equivalents. A tree picture : "arbor", a horse picture: "equos.")
F: And so, words create Reality, and he is a Deist.
This one is my favorite. Very funny! Makes me think I might like him in person.

Part One:I:100
S: First Principle -- The sign is arbitrary.
F: Duh!

Ok, so it's a "duh" principle. Yet Fergy put a big red star next to it, lest he should forget. Maybe the star was just to call attention to his helpful comment.

Part Two:II:146
S: (A table showing signs and their sounds)
F: Attempt at making a science . . . works for sheep perhaps, but you can't predict ME!

Apparently I can't predict him either. Halfway through the book, Fergy disappears. Maybe he gave up on linguistics. Maybe he just gave up on de Saussure. Maybe he got a girlfriend.

So I am grateful that the rest of my reading will by unsullied by obnoxious "self-serving" notes. But I think after all this I'm really going to miss him.

Professors are always wary of telling their students too much about a text, or of giving away their opinion of it. They want the students to have a fresh look at it and form their own opinions. That may be a good tactic, but I do like having a fellow student companion on the page with me.

Too often college students are not as interested in analyzing what they're reading as they should be. The classroom can be a dry place for ideas and exchanges. When I buy these crumply old books, I'm not only getting a good deal -- I'm getting a room full of students with whom I can debate, agree, yell at, be inspired by. I've got my own little book club just sitting on my shelves, and we've got all the characters we need -- the smartypants, the softspoken insightful one, the cynic, the observer. It's going to be a rollicking good semester.