Archives for the Month of March 2009 on Cereal Monogamist
The Amazing Race: Strategy, Luck, and The Inevitable Elimination of the Teams I Like
Though I was not willing to admit it immediately after viewing the episode, yes, Mike and Mel contributed to their own elimination on Sunday's episode of The Amazing Race. But they were not entirely and completely at fault. Fourteen seasons of this show have taught me more than a little about how it works.
Mistakes made by Mike and Mel
- They lost the mad dash for cabs getting out of the airport. This perhaps resulted in their unwarranted attachment to the cabbie who eventually picked them up and proceeded to lead them down blind alleys for the rest of the leg. They very much should have ditched that guy at the first available opportunity.
- They didn't listen to the people who told them the gorilla statue they were supposed to find was in a zoo; they did, however, listen to people who said the gorilla was on a beach.
- They let themselves get driven by their bad cabbie all the way to the beach.
Understandable mistakes made by Mike and Mel (places where their logic didn't serve them)
- Apparently, the first few people who they asked about the gorilla said, "I don't know, the zoo?" making the guys think it was a default guess; assuming it wouldn't be that obvious, they sought a different answer.
- They noticed other teams heading in the opposite direction as they were headed, and made a conscious decision not to follow the group like lemmings. This is an admirable move in a race where contestants frequently tail each other to avoid reading maps or figuring out clues for themselves. This time, it just made the Whites independently wrong.
Things that were totally not their fault
- The leg was designed with no thought-intensive challenges or tasks, which is how the dumbest teams managed to finish in top spots. I don't mind the physical challenges--I think the show needs them--but they need to be in combination with tasks that require logic and reason and problem-solving skills. Otherwise, you might as well just hand the million dollars to the dudes with the biggest muscles. (Which, admittedly, happens most seasons anyway.)
Anyway, even though I can acknowledge that a couple better-made decisions would have saved them, I will continue to find their loss controversial. They were such cool guys, good-natured, with no sense of entitlement whatsoever. In a previous episode, Mel was a bit short with a cabbie, asking him to hurry up; almost immediately, he confessed to the camera that he'd feel bad all day. This attitude was clearly sincere because we saw it again in this week's episode. Despite being significantly behind all the other teams, the Whites made it through the designed-for-frustration tea store task NOT by being bastards and demanding that everyone speed them through it, but rather by being silly, goofing around with the store owners.
You'll be missed, gay minister and bug-eyed, screenwriting son!
Other Amazing Race observations:
- Why is everyone getting into cabs without asking if the drivers know how to get to X location and Y landmark, and then complaining that the driver doesn't know what or where it is? Have these people not watched the previous seasons?
- Tammy and Victor are annoying, but there's a reason they're front runners. In addition to being fairly physically fit (they look like gym rats), they have never once been caught misreading a clue. Lawyers love details!
Message for the 30th of March
Happy Birthday, Mom! (Sent your gift through Amazon--did you get it yet?)
The Killers are Coming to Town!
Despite how sinister that sounds, it's a good thing! The Killers are my favorite band right now, and they're playing Cleveland on May 6. Coincidentally, that is the day my final grades are due and subsequently, the day that my school year is officially over.
Jeremy and I bought our tickets last night! The Killers will be my end-of-the-year blowout before the pleasant ennui of summer.
Here's "For Reasons Unknown," my favorite track from their second album, Sam's Town (the one in heavy rotation on my iPod right now).
They also released Day and Age, their fourth, this past fall.
Saturday thoughts don't need structure
I've just been browsing the web and found this shirt:
Other lazy weekend notes and observations:
- Why have I just discovered that the wife of Shakespeare and a contemporary actress are name twins? Doesn't that seem like something I would already know?
- One of my favorite sites devoted to being critical about celebrity fashion, Go Fug Yourself, is in the midst of their Fug Madness bracket tournament. I'm several rounds behind, but expect that Tilda Swinton and Beyonce's crazy sister are making good showings. Interested parties can see the bracket here.
- I've been bugging Jeremy ever since he started working at a certain unidentified major chain seller of coffee and pastries to use his clout to BRING BACK THE HAM AND CHEDDAR SCONE. He says he does not possess this power. I'll probably try Rachael Ray's recipe, then.
Literary theory, or I have a report due and I hate it
I had a conversation with my friend Andra once, about theory. She had been an anthropology and religion major (and I’m in English, of course). I said that I had trouble reading theory—that I never really understood an abstract concept until I could put a scenario to it. Apply a narrative, basically. She said that it was strange—she didn’t much enjoy reading novels, because she was always more interested in the ideas than the seemingly trivial details of what happened next.
At least I have Flannery O’Connor on my side. I quoted her in an earlier entry saying, “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” That’s from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” and if you want to know what she means, it’s simply this: her stories are not reducible to themes of good versus evil or the impact of righteousness on a bruised soul or the petty racisms of a person who thinks they’re doing right (although she’s written about all those things). Her stories are about people getting gored by bulls, and getting their wooden legs stolen by traveling Bible salesmen, and getting murdered by one’s own grandfather. She put a lot of thought (perverse thought, clearly) into creating those scenarios and “what happens” is every bit as important as what she’s saying through what happens. You can’t have one without the other.
So, theory is trying to have one without the other. The study of theory is meant to help me, as a student of literature, discover and develop methods for interpreting literature. Unfortunately, when it’s explained to me, it sounds like this:
The complexity of a culture is to be found not only in its variable processes and their social definitions—traditions, institutions, and formations—but also in the dynamic interrelations, at every point in the process, of historically varied and variable elements. In what I have called ‘epochal’ analysis, a cultural process is seized as a cultural system, with determinate dominant features: feudal culture or bourgeois culture or a transition from one to the other. This emphasis on dominant and definitive lineaments and features is important and often, in practice, effective. But it then often happens that its methodology is preserved for the very different function of historical analysis, in which a sense of movement within what is ordinarily abstracted as a system is crucially necessary, especially if it is to connect with the future as well as with the past.
I could go on. I’ve read about a thousand pages of that this week—it’s Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, and I have to deliver a report on it in two days. The main obstacle to this is that I barely understand a word of it. If I can keep my eyes on it—which is only sometimes, because (and this I have discovered) the narrative, or the story, is the rope that I cling to as I navigate the darkness of any configuration of words—then I still don’t understand what’s happening, because these ideas are presented with no analogy or application that will help me to understand it. All these problems make attempting to read this stuff really frustrating and tiresome. I’m used to mostly understanding what I have to study. But these complex ideas, communicated at the apex of their complexity with no little diagrams to put it in terms that I recognize, skate over my consciousness like stones skipping across the water. My mind reads—all the words get picked up—but nothing penetrates.
I ask questions in class—clarifying things, for example: “So this view of semiology is particularly distinguishing itself from an etymological view of language?” That’s really what I thought was going on, but here’s what the professor gave me: blankness, and “…No…” Like it’s not just that I’m missing the point, I’m so far off they don’t even get where I’m coming from. I am a bad student in this class. I’m doing the reading, like I said; I’m not absorbing or understanding it.
Six weeks left of this class. If I survive it, I will consider myself lucky. If I never have to deal with theory in my entire career again, I will consider myself blessed.
My nephew is a mini macho man
Even though I've been threatening to introduce him to books and foreign films and tea drinking and all the other sissy things I do, I think my nephew's machismo is already well-established.
Here he is at five months:
And here he is at seven months:
I hear that when he won the push-up contest, he moved on to a Steven Seagal movie and a case of beer.
I just got an e-mail that confirms that my e-file has been accepted; thus my taxes are done!
Usually the payoff is greater--I'm not getting much back in refunds--but it turns out I made surprisingly little money last year. Being completely unemployed for four months of the year and a graduate student for the other eight...will do that.
This is Me Today
Sniffly, achy, coughy me.
I Love You, Man!
That's right, I saw I Love You, Man tonight! Jealous?
Case had a free screening tonight, two days before it hits those movie theaters that only suckers go to. Jeremy and I saw the film, although we did have to give up our cell phones (and any other potential recording devices) at the door.
I won't write a full review (those get too spoilery) but I will say that Paul Rudd and Jason Segel are both memorable and hilarious in the movie. They both play full-fledged characters with lives, with believable personalities, with motivations that make sense--and it's all still funny. Hardly any actors (or movies) can show both sides of that coin at once. I wish I could describe some of their best moments, but I will not ruin them. Just know that both guys are funny in completely unexpected and unusual ways.
What else you can expect: a pretty typical Apatow experience, although Apatow was not involved in this one as far as I know. Lots of swearing and other kinds of naughty talk. A quite savvy satire of the difficulty of "making friends" as grown-ups and the fine line walked between male bonding and utter gayness. And they do say, "I love you man" to one another, and it's magnificent.
By the way, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is on television right now, and I'm watching it. Jeremy should consider himself lucky that Paul Rudd is too married and too famous to ever offer himself to me, because I would take him up on it so fast.
Divining Women, Kaye Gibbons
(I read this a month or so ago, and just got around to posting this review.)
Kaye Gibbons is one of the most well-known (non-Grisham) Southern writers out there right now. She’s written a number of novels and can boast a fair amount of critical success. I liked the description of the novel itself—the historical plot seemed right up my alley. On the negative side, I’d read one Gibbons novel before this one (Sights Unseen) and found it sorely lacking.
Unfortunately, Divining Women (I keep typing Diving Women) did not work for me. My immediate reaction was to say that it didn’t work for me for a number of reasons, but actually, that may be untrue. It may just be that one element of the book was so overwhelmingly poor that it overshadowed everything else the book had going for it. The period detail was, as far as I know, accurate. The lifestyle of the main character’s family was vividly rendered. In fact, I liked the idea of the plot all around, and it could have been done very well. The concept was solid, but the execution was flawed.
To say that the male character who is the villain of this work was set up as a straw man is a staggering piece of understatement. This man’s capacity for inflicting humiliation and abuse, his intense narcissism—it was all so heavy-handed as to draw me out of the book entirely. When Maureen, the wife, began to stand up to him, it became even worse. She would give him these retorts, which for some reason always left him speechless; yet, they were not strong. They were not eloquent. They sounded like the feminist fan-fiction rantings of a fourteen-year-old, who creates a male character who spouts offensive things so that she can deliver these self-righteous diatribes in the voice of her lady protagonist. Look, I was fourteen, and I wrote them. It’s all very fun when your judgments are unsubtle, 99% theoretical and no one has to read the thing except your Facebook friends. But this is a published novel by a grown woman.
I’m all for tearing down patriarchal idols, rewriting history to foreground the woman’s story, and so on. When women have been oppressed and beaten down (figuratively and literally, politically, socially, bodily) for centuries and continue to be so to this day, yes, I want to continue to hear their stories. In fact, I want to witness their redemptive, “screw you” moment when they tell their oppressor that he just won’t get to be one any more. But it has to feel like reality; it has to not strategically disarm the oppressor at that moment so that her victory feels unearned.
It’s interesting that my dislike of Sights Unseen also stemmed from one major problem in the construction of the novel, though not the same problem; not even a related problem. Sights Unseen violated the basic tenet of creative expression which instructs, “Show, don’t tell.” The entire story lacked what I would call (vocabulary stolen from film) “set pieces” in which characters exchange dialogue and events unfold in a specific location in a specific narrative time. It’s not strange to begin a novel with, for example, a retelling of an event from childhood, narrated retrospectively by the main character. But for it to take place, unrelentingly, throughout the entire novel? It made the events of the story seem so remote; I felt no connection to the characters. I’m sure it was an artistic choice to narrate the novel this way, but for me, the result was to take what should be a piece of art and give it the aesthetic value of a talk therapy transcript.
Websites of Note, 1st Edition
I have tons of websites that I’m obsessed with and visit regularly or more than regularly; I expect that, like “Why am I watching this?” from the other day, this topic will recur.
LOSING THE COW
This short blog I found in sort of a roundabout way; the blogger was a recapper at Television Without Pity (which I’ll cover on another day), then I followed her from there to her personal blog, on which she linked to this blog, which was devoted solely to her weight-loss efforts. Though she updated it a couple of times in 2008, the posts are largely from a few years earlier.
People who know me know that I am emphatically anti-diet, and, while I don’t discourage physical fitness for anybody, I find the obsessive pursuit of it a bit pointless. (It’s like this: I’ll walk the dog and do Pilates sometimes, but I won’t beat myself up if I skip a month or two. And I’m never giving up cheese.)
What does this site offer me, then, that I find so noteworthy? Philosophy, plain and simple. You have to start with the first post, in which the blogger (whose name is Linda Holmes, incidentally, and who now writes for yet another site that I like) explains how her approach, honed over 30 years of lifetime overweight-ness, differs from everyone else’s.
It’s like trying to win a tug-of-war, and you pull as goddamn hard as you can, and you don’t make any progress at all. And it seems like you should be able to do it, but you just don’t. And when you seek advice, you get the same piece most of the time: “Pull harder. You’re not pulling hard enough.” ... Here’s the advice you don’t get, that you should get:
1. Tie the rope to something secure.
2. Walk along the rope until you find the other end.
3. There will be a guy standing there. Kick the shit out of him.
...More after the jump.
Why am I watching this? 1st edition
("1st edition" means I expect to make similar posts in the future.)
It's Wednesday night, I have plenty of work to keep me busy--a very interesting novel I'm reading--a kitchen half-full of dirty dishes--and yet, here I sit, watching The Devil Wears Prada for the umpteenth time, and I wouldn't even have a problem with this sloth, seeing as I am on vacation, except for one thing.
I hate this movie.
So why am I watching it?
Your eyes do not deceive you
There have been some changes to the site recently; yes, I've been messing successfully with code!
For the less observant among you, here are the new features:
- new colors (shades of purple today, though expect me to change them more often than I change moods)
- a new font, this one a bit easier on the eyes and much more attractive when bolded
- a new blog image (a well-balanced diet of grains!)
- a new column on the sidebar called Currently Reading/Writing About--you know, in case you care
In Praise of Netflix
I’ve had a Netflix account since January 2005 (so my accounts page tells me) and I continue to love it. I know people who have tried and dismissed the system, but I find that for my renting habits, it’s just about ideal. The fact is, Jeremy and I haven’t even visited a bricks-and-mortar video rental place since we’ve moved. He mostly obtains movies through Internet savvy (all methods are super legal…of course…) and I have my Netflix. (Turns out geeks aren’t file sharing Sullivan’s Travels…)
The main drawback to Netflix is that you can’t get big movies the day they’re released into video stores. If that’s a priority for you, Netflix is not ideal. DVDs are usually released on Tuesdays; you can ‘save’ the disc before it’s released and it appears in your queue even before that Tuesday comes. Still, you’ll have to wait for shipping, and possibly, if there’s great demand for the movie, for other people to cycle through it before you can get your hands on it. I tend not to care if I see movies the week they came out, the year they came out, the decade they came out (the two discs in my possession currently are films from 1961 and 1999). I can say, from anecdotal evidence (a former co-worker who had Blockbuster online) that the waits at Netflix were shorter and the selection much better.
Selection is one of the real benefits of Netflix. Every film is exhaustively categorized, so you can find it in a number of ways: searching on “comedies of the 1940s,” or “movies about movies,” or “Oscar winners” or “movies based on books” etc. The queue is the list of wanna-sees, and you can slide movies up and down the list at will. I am not great about keeping the discs moving through the queue—I tend to sit on the films that got mailed for a long time—but Netflix has also instituted a Watch Instantly feature, which is basically awesome. I can watch movies on my computer (which I do, while e-mailing, or doing schoolwork at the more brainless end of the spectrum) or I can hook the computer up to the TV and watch the movie there. (Regarding that: Netflix users take heed! Do not pay a hundred bucks for the Netflix instant viewing device. All you need to watch movies on your TV is a laptop computer and a $10 cable.)
The Watch Instantly catalog started out a bit weak, but then Netflix allied themselves with, like CBS.com, and Starz Online, and a bunch of other video-streaming services, so the choices improved immensely and immediately. They do sometimes rotate out of service, so you have to keep an eye on the end dates. Anyway, that means that entire seasons of popular TV shows are watchable (The Office, 30 Rock), as well as movies that just came out, older classics, foreign films (Jeremy must have watched this Russian action film about ten times) and just really great stuff. Plus, Netflix marks the films that are in your existing queue which are also available to watch instantly; plus, they let you maintain a Watch Instantly queue which can be separate.
Speaking of separate queues, that’s another feature we use. I established a queue on my account for Jeremy, which he can access and into which he can put anything he wants. So if I hold on to The Innocents for two months (I’m watching it this week, I swear!) that doesn’t hold up the movies Jeremy is watching.
Further, the recommendations are excellent; I just rate movies I’ve seen, and they offer “you might also enjoy” picks. They’re more accurate, in general, than, say, Amazon’s similar recommendations. I’ve found some good stuff I would not have heard of, as well as stuff I’d heard of but wouldn’t have thought of to rent. Like I said, I appreciate the organizational effects of the queue; you can also access a complete list of your rentals, so I don’t forget what I’ve watched. I’ve never had a problem with any of their mailers, and I think I’ve only had maybe two lost discs in the four years I’ve had the account.
There's a community feature which I admit, I don't use much. There are some people I don't want to know that I consider Bridget Jones's Diary a 5-star movie, or that I found Being There really boring. My sister and brother-in-law are on there, but my taste in movies is pretty different from theirs, so we don't do a lot of sharing and advising. But the feature is there for those who are interested.
No, Netflix paid me nothing for this free advertisement.
The World According to Flannery O'Connor
I just read Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, a collection of the nonfiction writings of Flannery O'Connor. She was a notorious oddball who holed up on a Georgia farm with a flock(?) of peacocks and wrote some of the most haunting, gruesome stories to come out of the 20th century.
Here are some of her greatest hits:
- “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” from “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”
- “I’ve had a hard time all along with the title of that book [The Violent Bear It Away]. It’s always been called The Valiant Bear It Always and The Violets Bloom Away, and recently a friend of mine went into a bookstore looking for a copy of my stories and he claims that the clerk said, ‘We don’t have those but we have another book by that person. It’s called The Bear That Ran Away With It.’” from “The Regional Writer”
- “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.” from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”
- “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”
- “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”
- “If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.” from "The Nature and Aim of Fiction"
- “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” from "Writing Short Stories"
- “A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.” from "Writing Short Stories"
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
I listened to this (as an audiobook) after I finished Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, and the differences between the two books were immediately apparent. Most noticeably, this one was incredibly good.
Didion’s memoir is both smaller and broader in scale than Walls’. Didion writes only about a stretch of about eight months in her life: eight months during which her daughter battled serious, serious illness (coma, embolism, brain surgery, physical therapy to recover normal functions kind of serious illness) and eight months smack in the middle of which Joan’s husband of 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack. It’s basically the story of how tragedy knocks a woman sideways; in this case, a woman who is remarkably intelligent, rational, and organized, and who is unused to functioning without those skills.
Didion’s meditations on grief and survival are powerful and raw, and it’s in this sense that this memoir digs so much deeper than Walls’. Walls gave the outline (the blueprint) of about forty years of existence, but she barely scratched the emotional surface. On the other end of the spectrum, Didion’s story allows the reader (listener, in my case) real intimacy—painful intimacy, because we have to deal with her grief along with her, so intensely does she render it.
It’s beautifully written, and in and around the death and destruction, it provided an interesting glimpse of the lives of professional writers. I really enjoyed the casual mentions of passing the time marking up galley proofs, adapting snippets of their lives into scenarios for novels, having dinner at the homes of movie stars (Didion and her husband were screenwriters in the late 70s, when serious writers could still be screenwriters) and New York City publishing magnates. I also loved how Didion sublimated her grief in research and then worked it into the memoir. “Sigmund Freud had this to say about grief…” and so on. Other readers—particularly those on the readers’ forums I frequent—felt a bit put off by what they felt was Didion’s academic detachment, but I loved it for what it was: a (futile) attempt to intellectualize an emotional trauma.
What really compounds the tragedy is the knowledge that soon after Didion finished her book, her chronically-ill daughter Quintana died as well.
Review in brief: highly recommended (though not for the faint of heart)
(Didion, husband and daughter in happier times)